Russia prepares for evacuation of citizens from Syria
Russia sent warships to the Mediterranean to prepare a potential evacuation of its citizens from Syria, a Russian news agency said yesterday, a sign Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s key ally is worried about rebel advances now threatening even the capital.
Moscow acted a day after insurgents obtained a possible springboard for a thrust into Damascus by seizing the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, just 3km (two miles) from the heart of the city, said activists.
The Syrian opposition has scored significant military and diplomatic gains in recent weeks, capturing several army installations across Syria and securing formal recognition from western and Arab states for its new coalition.
Despite those rebel successes, bloodshed has been rising with more than 40,000 killed in a movement that began as peaceful street protests but has transformed into civil war.
Mr Assad’s pivotal allies have largely stood behind him, and Iran, believed to be his main bankroller, said there were no signs the president was on the verge of being toppled. “The Syrian army and the state machine are working smoothly,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Moscow yesterday.
But Russia, Mr Assad’s primary arms supplier, has appeared to waver with contradictory statements over the past week stressing opposition to Mr Assad stepping down and airing concerns about a possible rebel victory.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted unnamed naval sources as saying that two armed landing craft, a tanker and an escort vessel had left a Baltic port for the Mediterranean Sea. Russia has a naval maintenance base in the Syrian port of Tartus, about 250km (155 miles) northwest of Damascus.
“They are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens . . . Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified,” Interfax quoted the source as saying.
Mr Assad and his minority Alawite sect retain a solid grip on most of the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia, where their numbers are high. But the rebels, most of them Sunni Muslim, now control wide swathes of rural Syria, and have seized border zones near Turkey in the north and Iraq to the east, and are pushing hard to advance on Damascus, Mr Assad’s fulcrum of power, which sits close to the western frontier with Lebanon.
It was not possible to independently verify the Interfax report, which came a day after Russia confirmed that two citizens working in the Latakia province were kidnapped along with an Italian citizen. About 5,3000 Russian citizens are registered with consular authorities in Syria.