Russian Marines
Russian naval infantry, or marines, conducting a military exercise in 2010. WikiMedia Commons

The Russian defense ministry has denied claims that a naval division carrying several hundred marines is bound for the Syrian port of Tartus.

Three Russian amphibious assault ships, each carrying up to 120 marines on board, are currently sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, where they will eventually pass through the Bosphorus strait to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

Earlier reports, citing Russian government sources, said the division would stop at Tartus, where the Russian navy has a small maintenance facility. The defense ministry has said that the ships may still dock at Tartus if necessary.

With Syria embroiled in a bitter conflict between the military and opposition forces seeking President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, a potential military visit from Russia has raised questions about its intentions.

Russia has been a strong ally to the Assad regime, supplying it with weapons and ammunition and blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with China, to condemn the Syrian government's tactics, which have largely contributed to over 15,000 deaths estimated in the conflict thus far.

The U.N. General Assembly on Friday condemned the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons against opposition forces, a day after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan resigned as U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, citing frustrations with the division within the Security Council.

As the violence in Syria intensifies, Russia may begin evacuating the 30,000 Russian nationals that live there. There is speculation that the marines may be deployed in Tartus to assist with such an evacuation.