MOSCOW (Reuters) - 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 also said Russia was working on plans to evacuate its citizens 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,” the state-run Russian news agency RIA quoted Bogdanov as saying.
“Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
His remarks were the clearest sign yet that 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.
“We are dealing with issues of preparations for an evacuation. We have mobilization plans and are clarifying where our citizens are located,” Bogdanov said.
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 Russia 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 communiqué 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 with 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 realizes 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 also 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, authorized 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 that 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 living there were not registered. Many are Russian women married to Syrian men, and their children.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Thomas Grove and Kevin Liffey