* Kremlin's special envoy points to rebel gains
* Moscow making preparations to evacuate Russians if needed
* Clearest sign Russia preparing for Assad's possible defeat
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Dec 13 Rebel forces are gaining ground
against the Syrian government and could win the war against
President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin's envoy for Middle East
affairs said on Thursday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Russia was
working on plans to evacuate Russians from Syria if necessary.
"One must look the facts in the face. The regime and
government in Syria is losing control of more and more
territory," state-run Russian news agency RIA quoted him as
"Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be
ruled out," he said. "We are dealing with issues of preparations
for an evacuation. We have mobilisation plans and are clarifying
where our citizens are located."
His remarks were the clearest sign yet Russia is preparing
for the possible defeat of Assad's government in a conflict that
has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.
"The fighting will become even more intense and (Syria) will
lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of
civilians," Bogdanov was quoted as saying by the state-run
Russia Today broadcaster.
"If such a price for the removal of the president seems
acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it
Russia has shielded Assad's government from U.N. Security
Council censure and sanctions, resisting Western pressure to
join efforts to push him from power.
President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have
repeatedly said Moscow is not trying to prop up Assad but that
he must not be ousted from power by external forces, citing the
principle of non-interference in sovereign states' affairs.
Bogdanov indicated Russia's stance would not change.
"Moscow will continue to insist upon the implementation of
the Geneva communique and a peaceful resolution of the
conflict," he said, according to RIA.
International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has met Russian and
U.S. officials twice in the past week, is seeking a solution
based on an agreement reached in Geneva in June that called for
the creation of a transitional government in Syria.
Bogdanov said Russia could meet Brahimi and U.S. officials
again to support his efforts, but Moscow has warned that
international recognition of a new opposition coalition, notably
by the United States, is undermining diplomacy.
The United States says the Geneva agreement sent a clear
message that Assad should quit, but Russia contends that it did
nothing of the kind.
"Time is working against Assad and Russia realises that,"
said Fyodor Lukyanov, the well-connected editor of the journal
Russia in Global Affairs.
"I think a diplomatic solution is no longer possible and,
since the world would not let Assad win, the opposition assumes
sooner or later it will seize power by force," he said.
Syria has been one of Moscow's most important footholds in
the Middle East since the Soviet era, hosting a naval
maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's only military
base outside the former Soviet Union. Syria has been a major
buyer of Russian arms.
But analysts say Russia's refusal to budge on Assad is
driven by Putin's distaste for U.S.-led intervention abroad.
Moscow has warned the West it will not allow a repeat in
Syria of last year's events in Libya, where NATO intervention,
authorised by the U.N. Security Council after Russia abstained
from a vote, helped rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
But Russia has tried to distance itself from Assad and shown
signs that it is positioning itself for the day he may lose
power, not least by meeting with Syrian opposition groups.
A senior lawmaker allied to Putin said last week Assad's
government was incapable of carrying out its functions.
There are about 5,300 Russian citizens registered with
Russian consular authorities in Syria, but Bogdanov said the
majority of Russians there were not registered. Many are Russian
women married to Syrian men, and their children.