Russia says Assad's power receding
Russia said the chances of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in power were growing "smaller and smaller", as fighting in southwestern Damascus shut a main highway from the capital today.
Dr Assad has long counted Moscow as an ally and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's remarks were the most vocal Russian statement yet that his days may now be numbered, although they come after predictions from France, an avowed enemy, and from neighbouring Jordan that the Syrian president's downfall is not imminent.
"I think that with every day, every week and every month, the chances of his preservation are getting smaller and smaller," Mr Medvedev said, according to the transcript of an interview in Russian with CNN that was released by his office.
"But I repeat again, this must be decided by the Syrian people. Not Russia, not the United States, nor any other country," said Mr Medvedev, whose administration has criticised Western, Turkish and Gulf Arab support for Syria's rebels.
"The task for the United States, the Europeans and regional powers ... is to sit the parties down for negotiations, and not just demand that Assad go and then be executed like Gadafy or be carried to court sessions on a stretcher like Hosni Mubarak."
After Egypt's veteran president Hosni Mubarak was toppled, Russia withheld its veto on a UN Security Council resolution authorising Western and Arab powers to provide military help to the rebels who overthrew Muammar Gadafy in neighbouring Libya.
Moscow has since accused the West of breaching sovereign rights and has vetoed UN action against Dr Assad. Mr Medvedev warned that removing Assad by force would mean "decades" of civil war.
Russia has been Assad's most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.
Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed which has killed more than 60,000 people. But Russia has also distanced itself from Dr Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have seized territory in the north of the country, including several border crossings, and have challenged Dr Assad's control over Syria's main cities.
But Dr Assad's air power and army, whose senior ranks are dominated by his Alawite minority, have stemmed rebel advances.
France said on Thursday there was no sign Dr Assad was about to be overthrown, reversing previous statements that he could not hold out long, and Jordan's King Abdullah said Dr Assad would consolidate his grip for now.
"Anybody who is saying the regime of Bashar has got weeks to live really doesn't know the reality on the ground," Mr Abdullah said in Davos on Friday. "They still have capability, so I give them a strong shot at least for the first half of 2013."
Activists said rebels clashed with forces loyal to Dr Assad in southwestern Damascus today, seizing a railway station and forcing the closure of the main highway to Deraa in the south.
Footage posted on the Internet showed what activists said was a rebel attack on the station in Qadam district. One clip showed gunmen taking cover as gunfire could be heard. Another showed gunmen inspecting buildings by the track after what the narrator describes as the "liberation" of the station.