A top Russian diplomat said on Thursday that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is losing “more and more” control of Syria after 21 months of conflict and an opposition victory cannot be ruled out.
“As for preparing for victory by the opposition, this, of course, cannot be excluded,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.
“You need to look the facts in the eyes — the government regime is losing more and more control over a large part of the country’s territory,” he said.
His comments appear to be the first time that a senior Russian official has explicitly acknowledged that the opposition could defeat Assad and take power in Syria.
Russia has so far defiantly refused to turn against Assad’s regime despite the conflict that according to rights groups has killed 42,000 people since March last year.
Moscow infuriated the West and anti-Assad Arab states throughout the conflict by refusing to cut military and other ties with Damascus that were established with the president’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad in the Soviet era.
The RIA Novosti news agency also quoted Bogdanov as saying that the recent recognition of the opposition Syrian National Coalition by the United States — following similar moves by other states — had only emboldened the opposition.
“They (the rebels) are saying that victory is not far away, ‘let’s take Aleppo, let’s take Damascus’,” he said.
“The recognition of the opposition, the training with rebel fighters and the weapons from abroad are now only inspiring the opposition.”
Bogdanov said that despite the changing situation on the ground, Moscow would still insist on the fulfilment of an agreement between world powers in Geneva earlier this year to solve the Syria crisis through talks involving all parties.
He said the National Coalition’s programme had raised “many questions” in Moscow and the group’s “refusal to talk to Assad and (aim) to oust the regime” went against the Geneva accord.
In another sign of Moscow’s growing recognition of the seriousness of the situation, Bogdanov said Moscow was drawing up action plans that could be used to evacuate Russian citizens from Syria if needed.
He said the majority of Russians living in Syria are Russian women who married Syrian men, and their children. There no plans yet to evacuate diplomats and their families, he added.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Washington was now betting on an “armed victory” by rebels in the conflict after US President Barack Obama’s recognition of the opposition on Tuesday.
The National Coalition is a bloc of opposition groups led by moderate cleric Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib formed after talks in Qatar in November as part of a Western-backed push to make the opposition a more cohesive force.
Meanwhile Russia’s top general reaffirmed that Moscow was against any military solution to the conflict.
“Our firm belief is that the solving the Syria conflict is only possible by both sides without interference from a third side and above all without the use of military force,” chief of staff Valery Gerasimov said, quoted by RIA Novosti.