Russia and NATO say that rebels could win in Syria
MOSCOW — The outlook for Syria’s embattled president darkened considerably Thursday, when his most powerful foreign ally, Russia, acknowledged that he was losing the struggle against an increasingly coordinated insurgency, and for the first time said it was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.
The Russian assessment, made publicly by a top Foreign Ministry official in Moscow, appeared to signal a major turn in the diplomacy of the nearly two-year-old conflict and presented new evidence that the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, was losing politically as well as militarily.
On Wednesday it was revealed that Assad’s forces had resorted to firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebels in an attempt to slow the insurgency’s momentum.
The assessment suggested that Russia no longer viewed Assad’s involvement in a negotiated solution as a viable alternative. It also appeared to reflect a new recognition in Moscow that Assad and his minority Alawite government, long a Russian client, cannot survive in the face of a well-armed opposition financed by Arab and Western countries seeking his ouster. Some Russian officials have concluded that Assad’s foreign adversaries want an outcome decided by military force.
Further punctuating the Russian assessment was a dark view offered by the secretary general of NATO.
‘‘I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse,’’ Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels. “I think now it is only a question of time.’’
While senior Western officials said the basic Russian position had not shifted markedly, they welcomed the comments that were made to a Kremlin advisory group by Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and Russia’s top envoy for the Middle East, which were reported by the Interfax news agency.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,’’ Bogdanov said. ‘‘We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory.’’
Bogdanov predicted a bloody future with many more dead, suggesting that the fall of Assad and his government would not mean the end of the civil war, which is increasingly sectarian — Sunnis from within and without versus minority Alawites and Christians.
“If you accept this price to topple the president, what can we do?’’ he asked. ‘‘We of course consider this totally unacceptable.’’
Bogdanov said that Russia continued to urge political compromise to avoid many more deaths, but he also said that Russia was making plans to evacuate its many citizens in Syria, if necessary.
Senior Western officials said the remarks of Bogdanov and Rasmussen were not tied to any major or sudden shift on the ground. Rather, these officials said, the long war of attrition had leached power and money from the Assad government, and while the Syrian military had not been broken, it was no longer capable of regaining and retaining large swathes of territory.
A coalition of opposition fighters, with arms and training from Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries, is performing better in the field, and while some are fighting for a more democratic Syria, others are fighting for sectarian reasons, as committed Sunni Muslims trying to topple a minority Alawite government.