MOSCOW — Russia is sending two planes to Lebanon on Tuesday to evacuate more than 100 of its citizens from Syria, the Emergencies Ministry said, in the clearest sign yet that Moscow may be preparing for President Bashar al-Assad’s possible defeat.
Russia has been Assad’s main foreign protector during a 22-month uprising against his rule, but a diplomat conceded last month that the government had lost territory and the rebels fighting Assad could win the war.
Moscow is also carrying out what has been called its largest naval exercises since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean and Black seas, including off Syria’s coast, which analysts say are meant to underscore its interest in the region.
“On orders from the leadership of the Russian Federation, the Emergencies Ministry is sending two airplanes to Beirut so that all Russians who want can leave Syria,” ministry spokeswoman Irina Rossius said.
“It is planned that more than 100 Russians will leave Syria” on these planes, she told the Interfax news agency.
It was unclear whether the flights were the beginning of a longer evacuation operation.
Preparing to fly out its citizens is the clearest signal yet that Moscow believes Assad’s fall may be possible, though it has made no indication that it will abandon its position that Assad’s exit must not be a precondition for a peace deal.
Moscow leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at the Syrian port of Tartous and has had a large group of employees in Syria from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms-exporting monopoly.
A number of citizens from Russian companies that also have a presence in Syria still live there as well. Russian officials say there are tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Syria, many of them Russian women married to Syrians.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin’s envoy for Middle East affairs, said in December that the rebels could win the war against Assad and that Russia was working on plans to evacuate its citizens if necessary.
“The regime and government in Syria is losing control of more and more territory,” the state-run Russian news agency RIA quoted him as saying at the time. “Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”