SYRIA

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad losing control of his country, says Russia

Comments by deputy foreign minister a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for the Syrian leader's eventual defeat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 5:15am

Syria's most powerful ally, Russia, said for the first time yesterday that President Bashar al-Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war, dramatically shifting the diplomatic landscape at a time of enormous momentum for the opposition.

The comments come at a time when Assad, with his back to the wall, appears to be turning ever deadlier weapons on his adversaries. In what US officials described as an escalation in the 20-month civil war, Assad's forces have fired Scud-style ballistic missiles against rebels in recent days, US and Nato officials said.

While Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov didn't issue any immediate signal that Russia could change its stance and stop blocking international sanctions on Assad's regime, his remarks will likely be seen as a betrayal in Damascus and could persuade many Syrians to shift their loyalties and abandon support for the government.

It could also further strengthen the hand of the rebels, who have made some significant gains in their offensive recently.

"We must look at the facts: there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Bogdanov, the Foreign Ministry's point man on Syria, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber. "An opposition victory can't be excluded."

Bogdanov's statement marks a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat. He said that Russia was prepared to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Syria, although he didn't say when that might happen.

At the same time, Bogdanov reaffirmed Russia's call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.

"The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

Underscoring those fears were the claims that Assad has started resorting to deadlier weapons.

"Allied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets have detected the launch of a number of unguided, short-range ballistic missiles inside Syria this week," said a Nato official in Brussels. "Trajectory and distance travelled indicate they were Scud-type missiles."

A US official confirmed the use of Scuds. US officials said they were not aware of any previous use of the missiles.

It was not clear why Assad's forces would use Scuds, which can have a range of up to a few hundred kilometres.

The Soviet-designed missiles are unguided and inaccurate, and are not usually seen as a weapon of choice for the sort of internal anti-guerilla war that the government is waging against small, mobile rebel bands.

Assad's forces have in the past relied on artillery, helicopters and attack jets, all much more useful in close urban combat.

Last week Nato decided to deploy US, German and Dutch batteries of Patriot air defence missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border.

It is worried at the prospect of Syrian missiles being fired across the frontier.

The US, European powers and Arab states bestowed their official blessing on Syria's newly-formed opposition coalition on Wednesday, despite increasing signs of Western unease at the rise of militant Islamists in the rebel ranks.

Associated Press, Reuters