By ELLEN BARRY and THOMAS ERDBRINK
MOSCOW — Russia sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday, the Defense Ministry announced, in what appeared to be preparation for a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.
Russian officials began formulating plans during the summer for an evacuation, but have delayed making public announcements, analysts say, to avoid signaling a loss of confidence in President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime strategic ally. Moscow staunchly opposes international intervention in Syria and has blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions meant to force Mr. Assad from power. Officials said on Tuesday that Russia’s position had not changed.
However, Moscow has signaled in recent days that it sees Mr. Assad’s forces losing ground, and that it is beginning to prepare for a chaotic transition period. One immediate concern is the large number of Russian citizens scattered across Syria, as a result of decades of intermarriage and longstanding economic ties.
Late on Monday, Russian diplomats said that two Russian citizens had been kidnapped by an armed group. The two Russians — evidently workers in a privately owned steel factory — were seized as they traveled on a road between Homs and Tartus and were held for ransom. An Italian citizen, Mario Belluomo, was abducted along with them.
Then on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that a flotilla of five ships — a destroyer, a tugboat, a tanker and two large landing vessels — were being sent from Baltiysk, a port in the Baltic Sea, to relieve ships that have been in waters near Syria for months. A second group was sent from Severomorsk, on the Kola Bay in northwestern Russia. At typical cruising speeds for such vessels, both groups would arrive on station around the beginning of January.
A naval official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Interfax news service that the ships were “on their way to the coast of Syria for possible participation in the evacuation of Russian citizens” to a Russian port on the Black Sea. The official said that the mission had been planned swiftly but under conditions of total secrecy, and that the timeline for the ships’ return to port “depends on the development of the situation in Syria.”
Aleksandr I. Shumilin, a regional analyst and a foreign correspondent, said Russian leaders had avoided taking steps toward evacuation until now, to avoid signaling that Moscow intended to abandon Mr. Assad, but that they also risked public anger if Russians became targets of violence in Syria.
“It appears that some break has taken place, but whether that means a change of policy, or a modification of policy, that’s hard to say,” said Mr. Shumilin, who is head of the Middle East conflict analysis center at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for Canada and the United States. “The decision-makers are now concentrating on humanitarian questions, the protection of Russian citizens.”
Iran, Syria’s last ally in its region, appeared to remain firmly committed to Mr. Assad. On Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahianof Iran told reporters in Moscow, “The Syrian Army and the state machine are working smoothly.”
A planned visit by the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, was suddenly canceled on Monday amid tensions between Iran and Turkey over NATO’s decision to deploy Patriot antimissile batteries on the Turkish border with Syria.
Iranian leaders, politicians and Revolutionary Guard commanders have all denounced the NATO decision, made on Dec. 4, to send six batteries of American, German and Dutch Patriot systems staffed by about 1,000 soldiers to Turkey to intercept any Scud missiles that may be launched toward Turkey by the embattled Syrian government. Iran fears that NATO will use the batteries, which can also be used against aircraft, to set up a no-fly zone and create a rebel safe haven in northern Syria.
Iran’s top general, Hassan Firouzabadi, said at a meeting of senior commanders on Saturday that the deployment was part of a Western plan to start a “world war,” and that Iran’s own ambitious missile program was the real target.
“They signify concerns over Iran’s missiles and the presence of Russia for defending Syria,” he said. “The sensible people in America, Turkey and Europe must prevent this situation from getting out of control.”
The mobile Patriot systems could technically be used to intercept Iranian as well as Syrian missiles. They are effective against missiles at a range of about 12 miles, and against aircraft up to 100 miles.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to fire missiles at Israel if its nuclear installations come under attack.
On Tuesday, Iran’s defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said Israel was the winner in the Syrian conflict, because it was witnessing the destruction of an enemy — the Assad government — while the Syrian people were being “manipulated” by “terrorists.”
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, urged Iran to use its political clout with Damascus to end the violence in Syria, instead of making statements about the Patriot systems.
“Turkey and NATO have stressed over and over again that this system is solely for defensive purposes,” Mr. Davutoglu told reporters. “Turkey has the right to do what it wants in order to protect its territory. It is time for Iran to give a clear message to the Syrian regime.”