Published: December 13, 2012 41 Comments
MOSCOW — Russia’s top Middle East diplomat and the leader of NATO offered dark and strikingly similar assessments of the embattled Syrian president’s future on Thursday, asserting that he was losing control of the country after a nearly two-year conflict that has taken 40,000 lives and has threatened to destabilize the Middle East.
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SANA, via Associated Press
The bleak appraisals — particularly from Russia, a steadfast strategic Syrian ally — amounted to a new level of pressure on the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who has been resorting to increasingly desperate military measures, including the use of Scud ballistic missiles, to contain an armed insurgency that has encroached on the capital, Damascus.
The Russian diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, acknowledged that Mr. Assad’s forces could be defeated by rebels, whom the Syrian leader has repeatedly dismissed as ragtag foreign-backed terrorists with no popular support.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” said Mr. Bogdanov — the clearest indication to date that Russia believed that Mr. Assad could lose.
Mr. Bogdanov’s remarks, reported by Russia’s Interfax news service, came as the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters in Brussels that Mr. Assad’s use of ballistic missiles, which Western officials monitoring the Syrian conflict reported on Wednesday — and which Syria has denied — reflected his “utter disregard” for Syrian lives. Mr. Rasmussen also predicted the demise of Mr. Assad’s government.
“I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse,” he told reporters after a meeting with the Dutch prime minister at NATO headquarters. “I think now it is only a question of time.”
While the leaders of NATO member states have made similar predictions before, the assertion by Mr. Rasmussen, the leader of the Western military alliance, reinforced a growing consensus that Mr. Assad’s options for remaining in power had been all but exhausted — a view now apparently shared by Russia.
Throughout the Syria crisis, as it has grown from peaceful protests in March 2011 to engulf the country in armed conflict, Russia has acted as Syria’s principal international shield, protecting Mr. 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 view seemed to shift, while Mr. 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, a Kremlin advisory group, according to Interfax.
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 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 that was s not yet necessary. Russia’s press attaché in Damascus confirmed this, telling Interfax that there was “no sharp deterioration” in conditions there.
Mr. Bogdanov offered a dark view of how the conflict would unfold from this point, saying that it took two years for the rebels to control 60 percent of Syria’s territory, and another year and a half will pass before they control the rest.
“If up until now 40,000 people have died, then from this point forward it will be crueler, and you will lose dozens or many hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “If you accept this price to topple the president, what can we do? We of course consider this totally unacceptable.”
As the Russian official spoke, fresh evidence of the intensity of the battle emerged. During the civil war, Moscow has been the principal arms supplier for the Damascus government, as it has been for decades. Obama administration and NATO officials said on Wednesday that Syrian government forces had resorted to firing Scud missiles at rebel fighters as the government struggled to slow the momentum of the insurgency.