By Barbara Starr, with reporting from Jill Dougherty
The United States says it is tracking a Russian military cargo ship as it makes its way to Syria carrying weapons, ammunition and a small number of Russian troops.
U.S. intelligence believes the Russians are sending the ship to help fortify its naval base in Syria as the situation in country continues to spiral out of control, Pentagon officials told CNN Friday.
The presence of the ship was first reporting by NBC News.
Classified U.S. imagery shows the ship, called the Nikolay Filchenkov, began loading in the port of Sevastapol on the Black Sea on June 7 and is headed for the Syrian port of Tartus, where the Russians have a naval facility. The port is vital for Russian naval access to the entire Middle East.
Under maritime rules, Russia should declare what the ship is carrying when it enters the Mediterranean, U.S. officials said.
The sources could not say how many troops are on board, though it is not believed to be a large number. In addition, the officials said, it is not clear if the troops are only to help secure and transport the weapons and equipment or if they will stay in Syria.
For now, the United States believes Russia's intention is to defend its naval base. But it is not clear how much of a threat the Russians really are facing from Syrian opposition forces. There have been no reports of significant fighting in the area lately.
U.S. officials are worried there could be other plans for the troops and military gear should the Russians offload the ship in Tartus.
The Nikolay Filchenkov is a large landing ship capable of carrying up 1,700 tons and 300 troops, according to Human Rights Watch, which monitors ship activity in relation to Syria.
Russia has already been in a fierce back-and-forth with the United States, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Russians were shipping attack helicopters to Syria. The Russian government has said the helicopters are not new, but rather were refurbished under an existing contract with Syria.
"As we said before, there are no new combat helicopters supplies to Syria. Our military and technical cooperation with Syria is limited to delivery of defensive arms. As for helicopters, earlier we did a planned maintenance of equipment that had been supplied to Syria many years ago," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement published on its website Friday.
A former Russian presidential adviser tells CNN that it does not make sense for Moscow to send troops to offload at the port.
Andranik Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York, a Kremlin-backed non-governmental organization, said Russia has opposed introducing any outside troops into Syria because, Russian officials argue, it would create more problems in the violence-torn country.
"I don't see any logic in it," Migranyan told CNN, referring to the reports of troops on their way. "If Russia did that it would invite other countries to send forces to Syria."