Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — On the same day the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an Arab-backed resolution that severely criticized the Syrian government — blaming it almost exclusively for the killings and other atrocities that have come to shape the 17-month-old uprising there — the Russian Defense Ministry on Friday issued somewhat contradictory statements about a group of its naval warships steaming into the eastern Mediterranean.

The first statement said the warships were not planning to call on Tartus, a naval base Russia maintains in Syria. The second, issued several hours later, said it was possible that service boats from the group might call on Tartus to replenish supplies “if the time period of the trip is extended.”

Earlier in the day, Interfax quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry source as saying three landing assault ships, an anti-submarine ship and four smaller vessels might call on Tartus by Sunday. The ships are carrying a contingent of about 360 marines and amphibious armored personnel carriers.

The source didn’t specify whether the marines would remain in Tartus or leave with the warships. Tartus is a small port and won’t be able to dock more than two warships at a time, the source said.

Defense experts debated whether the naval group might be in the region to evacuate Russians based in Syria.

“I am absolutely confident that most likely their task will be to evacuate the personnel and equipment of the base,” Alexander Golts, a defense expert and deputy editor in chief of the popular liberal online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said in an interview.

“Whatever their task, it is clear that given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria the Kremlin wants to have some sort of military presence close to its shores,” Golts added.

The vote on the U.N. resolution, which had strong support from the United States and other Western governments, came a day after Kofi Annan, the special Syria envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, resigned in frustration over his inability to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. He blamed in part the deadlocked Security Council’s failure to give his efforts coercive power.

The General Assembly resolution, which also demanded that the Syrian government carry out Annan’s plan as promised more than four months ago, has no coercive power.

After attack, Palestinians may back rebels

BEIRUT — The first explosion tore into a busy street in Damascus. The second, which occurred minutes later as neighbors rushed to help those wounded in the first — may put an end, analysts said, to the effort by Palestinians in Syria to stay out of the country’s widening conflict.

At least 20 people were killed in the shelling Thursday night, according to the United Nations. Witnesses recalled and an online video portrayed a horrific scene, with gnarled bodies in burning storefronts and women screaming in the streets.

But with responsibility for the attack a matter of intense dispute — the government blames rebels; the rebels blame the Syrian army — its impact may reach beyond the carnage. Analysts said it could push Palestinian allegiances, already drifting from President Bashar Assad of Syria, fully into the rebel camp, greatly assisting the opposition’s struggle for recognition.

“The Palestinian cause is a central cause; it’s a builder of legitimacy and a basis for everything else,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The regime is clearly very protective of the issue, and the rebels are trying to establish a connection to it as well.”

The Assad government has long declared that it is the Palestinians’ grand protector, providing them with more rights than do Lebanon and supporting groups that have gone to war with Israel. In a nod to that history, most Palestinians have insisted on neutrality since the conflict in Syria began 17 months ago.

— New York Times News Service