Russia admits Assad may face defeat

Fri, Dec 14, 2012, 00:00

Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the country’s top envoy for the Middle East, said yesterday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government was losing control of the country and might be defeated by rebel forces.

“Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” Mr Bogdanov said – the clearest indication to date that Russia believes President Assad, a long-time strategic ally, could lose in a widening civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Russian protection

Throughout the crisis Russia has acted as Syria’s principal international shield, protecting President Assad diplomatically from western and Arab attempts to oust him and holding out the possibility of his staying in power during a transition.

Only in recent days has Russia’s resolve seemed to shift, while President Assad’s foes, grouped in a newly minted and still uncertain coalition, have garnered ever broader international support as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

“We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory,” Mr Bogdanov said in remarks to Russia’s public chamber, according to the Interfax news service.

Russia, he said, was preparing to evacuate its citizens – a complex task, since for decades Russian women have married Syrian men sent to study in Russia and returned to Syria with them to raise families.

It was the first time an official at Mr Bogdanov’s level had announced plans for an evacuation, which sent a clear message to the Syrian government that Russia no longer held out hope that the government could prevail.

He said Russia had a plan to withdraw its personnel from its embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus, but it was not yet necessary. Russia’s press attache in Damascus confirmed this, telling Interfax that there was “no sharp deterioration” in conditions there.

As the Russian official spoke, fresh evidence emerged of the intensity of the battle, in which Moscow has been the principal arms supplier for the Damascus government, as it has been for decades.

Obama administration officials said on Wednesday that government forces had resorted to firing ballistic missiles at rebel fighters as it struggled to slow the momentum of the insurgency.

Scud missiles fired

The officials said that over the past week, President Assad’s forces for the first time had fired at least six Soviet-designed Scud missiles in the latest bid to push back rebels who have consistently chipped away at the government’s military superiority.

Syrian state media and anti-government activists reported that at least 16 people had been killed when a car bomb exploded near a school in the town of Qatana, southwest of the capital, yesterday.

The bomb injured more than 20 people, leaving some in critical condition, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and tracks the conflict through a network of activists.

Government forces still hold sway in Qatana, a town with a Sunni Muslim majority and Christian minority, Agence France-Presse reported.– (New York Times service)