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.
The comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov appear to be the first time a senior Russian official has explicitly acknowledged that the opposition could defeat Assad and take power in Syria.
In unusually outspoken remarks for a Russian diplomat, Bogdanov also said Russia was drawing up contingency plans for evacuating nationals from Syria. He warned the conflict could still claim tens of thousands more lives.
“As for preparing for victory by the opposition, this, of course, cannot be excluded,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS and Interfax news agencies.
“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.
Russia has so far refused to turn against Assad’s regime despite the conflict, which according to rights groups has killed 42,000 people since March last year.
Throughout the conflict, Moscow has infuriated the West and anti-Assad Arab states by refusing to cut military and other ties with Damascus. Those ties were established with the president’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad in the Soviet era.
Bogdanov warned that if even the opposition were to win, the conflict still risked lasting many more months at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
“They (the opposition) say that they are controlling 60 percent of Syria’s territory but we say to them that if they continue there is still 40 percent left,” he said.
“If they have taken 60 percent in two years of civil war then they are going to need another one-and-a-half years (to win).
“And if until now 40,000 people have died and the battles are going to get even tougher, then tens — maybe hundreds of thousands — more lives will be lost.”
He asked: “If this cost of overthrowing the president suits them (the rebels) then what are we to do?”
“We, of course, think this is completely unacceptable.”
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 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 were no plans yet to evacuate diplomats and their families, he added.
Bogdanov admitted that Russia had lost out in the Arab Spring uprisings that swept secular autocratic regimes from power, saying there was economic damage to the national interest in the form of lost contracts.
Meanwhile, the strengthening of “radical Islamist forces” in the Arab World risked having a negative effect in Russia’s mainly Muslim Northern Caucasus and the neighbouring states of Central Asia, he said.
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.