U.S. warship - AP - 12.11.11
The U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Photo by AP
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Two Russian warships are expected to arrive in Syria on Saturday, the state-run Itar-Tass news agency reported, a visit that will likely be seen as a show of force and a display of support for President Bashar Assad's government.

The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and the frigate Yaroslav Mudry are scheduled to put in at Russia's naval maintenance and supply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, Itar-Tass cited an unnamed representative of the navy's general staff as saying.

The official said the vessels, part of a group of Russian ships currently in the Mediterranean, were expected to spend several days at the Tartus facility, one of the Russian navy's few outposts abroad.

Russia has maintained support for the increasingly isolated Assad during a nearly 10-month-old uprising against his rule. The United Nations estimates the government crackdown has killed more than 5,000 people.

Amid global pressure on Assad, analysts say Russia's stance is rooted in resentment over Libya, reluctance to lose one of its few footholds in the Middle East and a desire to project a firm image in relations with the West in an election season.

Russia joined China in October in blocking passage of a Western-crafted UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's government for the crackdown, saying that
Assad's militant opponents share the blame.

Moscow has also said the measure could have opened the way for Western-style military intervention echoing the NATO air strikes in Libya, where the Kremlin charges that the alliance overstepped the bounds of its Security Council mandate.

Syria has been a major recipient of Russian weapons, accounting for 7 percent of Russia's total of $10 billion in arms deliveries abroad in 2010, according to the Moscow think- tank CAST.

Russian media had reported in November that the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would call at Tartus.

Itar-Tass suggested the Admiral Kuznetsov was in the Mediterranean along with the Admiral Chabanenko, the Yarolsav Mudry and other ships, but cited a naval official as saying it would not visit any ports.

Russian navy and Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.