(File image) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Moscow - A Russian military source was quoted on Friday as saying Moscow was sending three naval ships and up to 360 marines to Syria, but the Defence Ministry said there were no plans for the vessels to dock in the war-torn country.

Three Russian news agencies quoted a source in the General Staff as saying the vessels, already in the Mediterranean, would arrive in Tartus this week or early next week with supplies for Russia's only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union. Russia is a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad whose country is Moscow's main foothold in the Middle East. Syria bought $1 billion worth of weapons from Russia last year, or about 8 percent of total Russian arms exports.

Russia's Defence Ministry later issued a statement denying the warships would go to Tartus but left open the possibility they would do so if they remained at sea longer than expected.

“The military vessels' entry ... to Tartus is not planned, the ministry statement said, adding that the ships would have “every right” to enter Tartus if the length of their voyage increased and they were ordered to carry out new tasks.

A Syrian official visiting Moscow told reporters separately that Damascus had reached an agreement to send crude oil to Russia in return for shipments of refined oil products.

“We will deliver our oil and receive gasoline and diesel, it will be a barter,” Qadri Jamil, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said.

He was visiting Moscow with other government and private sector officials looking for ways to alleviate the economic effects of sanctions on Syria.

The official said Syria was producing about 200,000 barrels per day and added: “We need oil, oil products. Shortages of these materials are making the situation in the country difficult.”

He also said Syria had asked for credit from Russia and that the size and terms of any such loan would be decided “within weeks”.

Russia earlier had said it was preparing to send marines to Syria in case it needed to protect personnel and remove equipment from the naval maintenance facility at Tartus, which analysts say is staffed by fewer than 100 people.

The source in the Russian General Staff said the three ships, each carrying up to 120 marines, would be joined by three other vessels from the Russian Navy's Black Sea and Northern Sea fleets.

The potential loss of Tartus would be a strategic blow to Russia, according to what the Interfax news agency described as a military-diplomatic source.

“Tartus is of extreme military-strategic importance for the Russian Navy, as the backup for the task forces in the Mediterranean. Therefore, its loss would entail deep negative consequences and the actual loss of influence in this key region,” Interfax quoted the source as saying.

The General Staff source said the ships would head back to Russia after spending several days in Tartus.

Russia has blamed the West for the failure of diplomatic efforts led by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who resigned on Thursday, and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Friday underlining the importance of replacing him quickly.

“The Russian Federation ... gave him the maximum assistance,” the statement said but complained that its Western partners and some regional states had not done enough to help.

“Moreover ... they continued to provide Syrian opposition groups with political, moral, material, technical and financial assistance, thereby in effect encouraging the irreconcilability of anti-government forces.

Russia and China have three times blocked Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria that were meant to put more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. - Reuters