But after Russia’s consistent sheltering of Assad from U.N. condemnation and other attempts to force him out, the statement from Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was an indication that even the strongest allies of the Syrian government are reckoning with the military and diplomatic gains that rebel forces have made in recent weeks.
“The opposition’s victory, regrettably, cannot be ruled out,” Bogdanov told a Kremlin advisory body on Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency. “We need to face the truth. A current tendency is that the regime and the government keep losing control over an ever-growing territory.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland commended the Russian government for “finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered.” But “the question now,” she said, is whether the Russian government would join an international push to aid and organize the Syrian opposition, and would stop supporting Assad.
Russia has had major trade and cultural ties with Syria dating to the Soviet Union, and it has been reluctant to turn away from its only reliable ally in the Middle East. But Bogdanov’s comments suggested that his government is beginning to confront what might happen if Assad’s regime falls, despite Russia’s best efforts to protect it.
Russia’s goals then would include extricating its citizens living in Syria and attempting to preserve relations with whoever succeeds Assad. Bogdanov said Thursday that Russia was trying to locate its citizens in Syria and was “preparing for a possible evacuation. We have mobilization plans.”
Russia’s official support for Assad remains unwavering, driven in part by a sense that there is still no alternative.
“In Moscow, you will find very few people who believe that after Assad, Syria will remain a governable state,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a political analyst. “The Russian Foreign Ministry, in fact, is very much realistic. They have no illusions. They understand what is happening there.”
But in what may have been an attempt to readjust slightly, Bogdanov said that about half of the Russians in Syria support the opposition. He noted that Russian citizens have joined opposition delegations that have visited Moscow.
‘Only a question of time’
In Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Assad’s government appears to be “approaching collapse,” the Associated Press reported. Rasmussen said the defeat of the Syrian military and the fall of the government was “only a question of time.”