Syria government ‘losing control’ – Russian official

BBC 13.12.2012 – Syria on 29 November Victory for the Syrian opposition could not be ruled out, Mr Bogdanov a  Russian official has said for the first time that the Syrian government may be defeated by opposition forces. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are “losing more and more control and territory”, deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

He said Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, was making plans for a possible evacuation of thousands of its citizens. Nato’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier said the organisation had detected the launch of such short-range missiles, saying it showed an “utter disregard” for the lives of the Syrian people.

Russia, along with China, has used its veto at the UN Security Council to block resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s use of violence. But Mr Bogdanov said on Thursday: “Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the victory of the Syrian opposition.”Mr Bogdanov repeated Russia’s call for dialogue between the two sides, predicting that the fighting would grow more intense.

These comments are significant. Now, for the first time, the Russians have publicly conceded that their ally faces possible defeat. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said it was time to “face facts” and admit that the victory of the Syrian opposition “could not be ruled out”. Moscow’s critics will argue that Russia has been too slow to “face facts”; if President Assad is ousted, the Russians may struggle to retain influence in the region. He said tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people would be killed if that happened. “If such a price for ousting the president seems acceptable to you, then what can we do? We consider it unacceptable,” he said.

Mr Bogdanov said plans were being drawn up for a possible evacuation of Russian citizens. “We have mobilisation plans and are clarifying where our citizens are located,” he said. Mr Bogdanov also raised concerns about “extremists” seizing chemical weapons arsenals, according to the Interfax news agency. Western nations have in recent days raised the prospect of Syrian government forces themselves using chemical weapons. Mr Bogdanov’s comments do not mean Moscow has changed its official position, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in Moscow reports.

Russia still maintains that the ousting of President Assad would deepen the conflict, but this is the first time Russia has publicly acknowledged that the Syrian president faces possible defeat, our correspondent adds.

In Brussels, Mr Rasmussen said the collapse of the Syrian government was “only a question of time”, adding that President Assad should “initiate a process to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”.

Speaking in Jordan, a minister in the Iraqi government, Rafa al-Essawi, also said that “Syrian changes will take place shortly”, telling AFP news agency: “I think, personally, it is weeks.” At a meeting in Morocco on Wednesday, more than 100 countries recognised an opposition coalition as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

A day earlier, the US had recognised the National Coalition, drawing a sharp response from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Washington had decided to place all its bets on the coalition achieving an “armed victory”.