By Carlo Muñoz - 03/19/12 07:04 PM EDT
The Russian base in Tartus is the country's only naval installation outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. A Russian naval squadron conducted a port visit in January, just as violence between rebel forces and government troops loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was coming to a head.
The port call was interpreted by many regional observers as a show of support by Moscow for the Assad regime.
Last Friday, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov dismissed claims that Moscow would send special-operations units to Syria to support Assad's crackdown on rebel forces. “There are no [Russian] special forces with rifles and grenade launchers running around,” he told The Associated Press.
News of the troops' arrival comes a week after a group of lawmakers pressed the Pentagon to cut ties with a Russian weapons maker accused of providing arms to the Syrian government.
Led by Sens. John CornynJohn CornynCongress steamrolls Obama's veto 78 lawmakers vote to sustain Obama veto Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE (R-Texas), Dick DurbinDick DurbinDems gain upper hand on budget McConnell: Senate could drop flood money from spending bill Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (D-Ill.), Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate passes funding bill to avoid shutdown Ryan optimistic about GOP majorities in House and Senate Dems gain upper hand on budget MORE (R-N.H.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senate Dems call for investigation into Wells Fargo's wage practices MORE (D-N.Y.), the bipartisan group of 17 senators urged DOD to end all business with the Russian-based defense firm Rosoboronexport.
The company is currently under contract with the Pentagon to supply 21 Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan National Security Forces, at a cost of $375 million.
“U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” the senators wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Monday.
"We urge you to use all available leverage to press Russia and Russian entities to end their support of the Assad regime ... which is within your authority as Secretary of Defense," they added.
Some on Capitol Hill have called for direct action by the United States to support the Syrian rebels. Sens. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq McCain comments won't derail Bergdahl case Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have led the charge to supply anti-government forces with American arms and provide air cover with U.S. warplanes.
However, many rank-and-file Republicans have been hesitant to back McCain's call for support. Senate lawmakers are reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, fearing the United States could be drawn into another protracted conflict in the Middle East.