Russian ships have arrived in the Mediterranean, and the US has stepped up its military presence

On 6 January, Syria’s president Bashar al Assad delivered his first public speech in months, calling on every citizen to play their part in “a total national mobilisation” against US-backed rebels that he described as al Qaeda terrorists.

The speech came despite Assad having lost control of large parts of Syria, and the country’s 18-month civil war still not being at an end. Revelations in mid-December that two squadrons of Russian ships were en route to the Mediterranean appeared to suggest the civil war had begun to spill over into a proxy war between Russia and the US.

According to the Sunday Times, these ships have now arrived at their destination in the east Mediterranean. On the same day that Assad delivered his speech, the newspaper quoted a Russian diplomat who said the deployment of Russian ships, vehicles and marines in the area were meant to deter any escalation in Western intervention in the uprising.

In a growing military presence in the region, NATO announced that it had begun deploying Patriot missiles in Turkey just days before the Russian ships’ arrival. On 4 January, the US military’s European Command issued a statement saying that up to 400 US troops will be deployed to Incirlik, an air-base in south-eastern Turkey, to operate two Patriot batteries supporting NATO’s mission there. They will join forces from Germany and the Netherlands, who will each operate another two batteries.

The official line from NATO is that “the forces will augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities and contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the Alliance’s border”. There is a real risk that this showdown between Russian and American forces could spark greater military conflict in the region, however.