BEIRUT – Syria’s most powerful ally and protector, Russia, began positioning itself Thursday for the fall of President Bashar Assad, saying for the first time that rebels might overthrow him and preparing to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from the country.
The head of NATO echoed the Russian assessment, saying the Syrian government is near collapse following a nearly two-year conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people and threatened to ignite the Middle East.
Assad appears to be running out of options, with insurgents at the gates of the capital and the country fracturing under the weight of a devastating civil war.
“An opposition victory can’t be excluded, unfortunately, but it’s necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Moscow’s Middle East envoy, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body.
Still, Bogdanov gave no immediate signal that Russia would change its pro-Syria stance at the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has shielded Damascus from world sanctions.
The U.S. commended Russia “for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“We call on Russia to work with us ... work with the various stakeholders in Syria to start moving towards a transitional structure, and we would like to have their help in doing that,” she said.
Russia’s acknowledgment that Assad could lose the fight is an embarrassing blow to the regime, which describes the rebels as terrorists sent from abroad with no popular support.
But the rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks, seizing large swaths of territory in the north and expanding their control on the outskirts of the capital, pushing the fight closer to Assad’s seat of power.
The opposition still faces enormous obstacles, however, including the fact that some of its greatest battlefield successes are by extremist groups the West does not want to see running Syria — something that could hamper international support.
On Wednesday, the U.S., Europe and their allies recognized the newly reorganized opposition leadership, giving it a stamp of credibility even though it remains to be seen if the new bloc holds much sway with the fighters on the ground.
At the same time, the regime has come under fresh condemnation as Western officials raise concerns that Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in an act of desperation. The U.S. and NATO also say Assad’s forces have fired Scud missiles at rebel areas.
“We can’t confirm details of the missiles, but some of the information indicates they were Scud-type missiles,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday in Brussels. “In general, I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it’s only a question of time.”
Syria denied the Scud allegations. The government also has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people. Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although the exact dimensions are not known.
At Thursday’s hearings in Moscow, Bogdanov said the Foreign Ministry is preparing evacuation plans for thousands of its citizens, most of whom are Russian women, married to Syrian men, and their children.
“We are dealing with issues related to the preparation for evacuation,” Bogdanov said. “We have mobilization plans. We are finding out where our citizens are.”
Russia’s ties to Syria date back to Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled from 1971 until his death in June 2000. In the last four decades, Russia has sold Syria billions of dollars’ worth of weapons. A change in power in Damascus could not only cost Russia lucrative trade deals, but also reduce Russia’s political and strategic interests in the Arab world.
Those interests include a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus – the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.
The Russians also strongly oppose a world order dominated by the United States, and they are keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s NATO air campaign that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a former ally of Moscow.
Bogdanov’s remarks will likely be seen in Damascus as a betrayal of longstanding ties. There was no immediate reaction from the Syrian regime.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist based in a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs in central Syria, said he is encouraged by Bogdanov’s comments because Russia is in a position to know about the strength of Assad’s forces.
“The Russians know his capabilities and his military force. Russia knows what warplanes and what weapons he has,” Abu Bilal said via Skype. “The Free Syrian Army is on the verge of strangling Damascus, and this indicates that the regime is reaching an end,” he added, referring to the main rebel fighting force.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, agrees the Russian stance may reflect new information about the situation on the ground.
“A public statement like that appears to indicate that the balance is shifting,” he said.
Analysts say that by backing Damascus, Russia has lost any chance of holding any influence in a post-Assad Syria. Now, Lukyanov says, the Kremlin wants to distance itself from the crisis even though Moscow believes the violence will continue after Assad’s fall.
“If Syria plunges deeper into violence after the regime’s fall, Russia would say: We have warned you that it would happen.”
Meanwhile, violence was escalating in and around the capital.
Syrian state TV said that a car bomb went off Thursday in Jdeidet Artouz, a suburb southwest of Damascus, killing eight people.
In an online video that activists said showed the bomb’s aftermath, dozens of people scrambled over piles of rubble looking for survivors. When two men dragging a woman away accidentally lifted her shirt, someone yelled to them, “Cover her! Cover her!” Other men pulled a wounded man from the rubble, his face covered in blood and his clothes gray with dust.
A bomb near a school in the Damascus suburb of Qatana killed 16 people, at least half of them women and children, the state news agency SANA reported.
The blasts were the latest in a string of similar bombings in and around Damascus that have killed dozens of people in the last two days, state media said.
The government blames the bombings on terrorists, the term it uses to refer to rebel fighters. While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombs, some have targeted government buildings and killed officials, suggesting that rebels who don’t have the firepower to engage Assad’s elite forces in the capital are resorting to guerrilla measures.
Similar attacks hit four sites Wednesday in and around Damascus. Three bombs collapsed walls of the Interior Ministry building, killing at least five people. One of the dead was a parliament member, Abdullah Qairouz, SANA reported.
Assigning responsibility for the blasts remains difficult because rebels tend to blame attacks that kill civilians on the regime without providing evidence, while competing groups often claim successful operations.
The conflict began amid the Arab Spring in March 2011 as peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for four decades. But a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators led many to take up arms against the government, and the uprising soon transformed into a civil war.
As the death toll mounted, Assad, a 47-year-old eye doctor by training, has become a global pariah. Russia, China and Iran are among his last remaining allies.
On Thursday, Bogdanov warned that it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and said Syria would suffer heavy casualties.
“The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable.”