December 13, 2012 10:55 am

Russia admits Assad could be toppled

Senior Russian officials have admitted publicly for the first time that rebel forces might push President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, in a sign that Moscow may be preparing for the defeat of its strongest ally in the Middle East.

“One must look the facts in the face,” the Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy foreign minister, as saying. “Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”

Mr Bogdanov said the Syrian government was “losing control of more and more territory”, and that Moscow was preparing contingency plans for Russian citizens in case evacuation became necessary.

Also on Thursday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary-general, was reported as saying he thought the Syrian government was nearing collapse.

Mr Bogdanov’s comments came as a car bomb in restive suburbs southwest of Damascus killed more than a dozen people, according to the state news agency. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Syrian government forces have fired Scud missiles at rebel groups in recent days, according to the US and UK governments, in a move that some have seen as a sign that the regime may be running out of options. Syria denied the use of Scud missiles on Thursday.

Experts on Russian foreign relations said Mr Bogdanov’s frank admission did not, however, presage a change in Russia’s policy towards Syria, nor would Russia rethink its opposition to UN sanctions against Damascus.

“It does not change anything,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Near Eastern Studies, an independent think-tank. “Since the very beginning, there has always been the possibility that Assad will lose his position. Why not? It does not change the principle.

“It will not change the Russian position in the United Nations, and it will not change the Russian position in relation with our western colleagues because we do not protect Assad, we do not protect the Ba’ath party regime, and we do not protect any regime in this world.”

Moscow insists its opposition to sanctions and foreign intervention in the conflict is rooted in a pragmatic vision of protecting secular regimes in the Middle East, and should not be seen as direct support for the Syrian regime – its oldest and strongest ally in the Middle East.

“In Libya, we and the Chinese kept our hands on the table, and it brought us what it brought us. Lynching of [Colonel Muammer] Gaddafi, genocide of the Gaddafi tribe and, at the end, the death of the American ambassador and radicalisation of the whole area,” said Mr Satanovsky.

“This gave us a clear understanding – if the secular states of the Arab world become part of some Islamic caliphate, then the next place the Islamists will operate will be central Asia, and the Russian Islamic territories. We do not need a caliphate in the Volga region and northern Caucasus, thank you very much.”

Georgy Mirsky, a specialist on the Middle East at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, agreed that Russia’s position on Syria would not change, even if Mr Assad were seen to be losing. But he said this was due to domestic political considerations.

“If Assad loses power in a struggle, then [President Vladimir] Putin can say, ‘Well, we tried, but we weren’t strong enough to defeat the West.’ But if he is seen to surrender Assad, then he will be seen as a loser. And he cannot be seen as a loser.”

Attacks over the past year have spread fear in Damascus, where people are now braced for a showdown between regime forces and rebels, who are pushing towards the heart of Mr Assad’s power.

Some analysts argue that the alleged Scud salvo might have been an exploratory step leading – in the absence of an international response – to missile strikes on Aleppo and the possible use of chemical weapons later on.

“We are near the end of the escalatory ladder,” said Joseph Holliday, senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “Now we have the Scuds; there is only one step left. And the thing is, there is nothing we can do about it right now.”

The alleged Scud attacks also raise questions about whether a combination of rebel attacks and possible shortages of parts and fuel are helping to neuter Mr Assad’s feared air force.

The regime has since the summer used air power as one of its main weapons, as it has tried to drive back rebel advances into areas where it cannot or will not send ground forces. But that air-power advantage has been steadily eroded as opposition fighters have used seized and smuggled supplies of surface-to-air missiles to bring down some aircraft and deter others. They have also overrun air bases and sabotaged or destroyed aircraft kept there.

“I definitely think it is an indication of the degradation of the Syrian air force,” said Mr Holliday. “Not that the Syrian air force is down and out – but they won’t risk these types of sorties around Aleppo.”

Analysts say the regime’s military machine also faces supply problems because of a combination of money shortages, international sanctions and transport disruptions caused by conflict.

The authorities announced this week that production at the oil refinery in Banias, one of only two in the country, was being suspended due to pipeline attacks – cutting off a vital fuel lifeline to the regime.

Additional reporting by Abigail Fielding-Smith

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