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Three Russian ships headed for Syria, US says

The Russian military is preparing to dispatch three naval ships to Tartus, its Mediterranean base in Syria, the Pentagon said Tuesday. The ships are filled with supplies and are tasked with securing the Russian base and troops there.

At a briefing at the Pentagon, spokesmen Capt. John Kirby and George Little said there is no indication that the supplies will support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

NBC News first reported last week that Russia is preparing to send a small contingent of troops to Syria in the event that it needs to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility from the base.

In addition to these three Russian naval ships, a contracted ship carrying helicopter parts that was bound for Syria has turned around and is returning to Russia.

Russian shipment of attack helicopters headed for Syria halted off Scotland

The contracted ship was insured by a British company that pulled its insurance policy as the ship rounded the northern coast of Scotland.

The vessel had been closely monitored by intelligence agencies since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that such shipments were adding to the weapons arsenal in Syria, which has spiraled into civil war.

Clinton says Russia is sending gunships to Syria, could escalate conflict dramatically

Kirby said that the United States supports that decision for the ship to turn around, but he was not aware that the U.S. put any pressure on Britain or the company to pull the insurance policy.

Syria is Moscow's firmest foothold in the Middle East and buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars. It also hosts the Russian navy's only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto to dilute Western efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad and nudge him from power, arguing that deposing a government using external pressure is unacceptable.

The announcement that Russian naval ships are bound for Syria comes one week after France declared the turmoil there is a full-blown civil war.  More than 10,000 Syrians have been killed since the first uprising against Assad 15 months ago.

U.S. official: Russia sends troops to Syria as peace, hope fade

The head of the U.N. observers in Syria said Friday a recent spike in bloodshed is derailing the mission to monitor and defuse more than a year of violence and could prompt the unarmed force to pull out.  

Jim Miklaszewski is the chief Pentagon correspondent for NBC News. Courtney Kube is NBC News National Security Producer. Msnbc.com’s Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.

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