Rus­sia pre­par­ing for fall of Syr­ian regime

Head of NATO says As­sad close to los­ing grip on power as rebels near cap­i­tal.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Elizabeth A. Kennedy as­so­ci­ated press Manu Brabo / as­so­ci­ated press

BEIRUT — Syria’s most pow­er­ful ally and pro­tec­tor, Rus­sia, be­gan po­si­tion­ing it­self Thurs­day for the fall of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, say­ing for the first time that rebels might over­throw him, and then pre­pared to evac­u­ate thou­sands of Rus­sian ci­ti­zens from the coun­try.

The head of NATO echoed Rus­sia’s as­sess­ment, say­ing the Syr­ian government is near col­lapse fol­low­ing a nearly two-year con­flict that has killed more than 40,000 peo­ple and threat­ened to ig­nite the Mid­dle East. As­sad ap­pears to be run­ning out of op­tions, with in­sur­gents at the gates of the cap­i­tal and the coun­try frac­tur­ing un­der the weight of a dev­as­tat­ing civil war.

“An op­po­si­tion vic­tory can’t be ex­cluded, un­for­tu­nately, but it’s nec­es­sary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to pro­gres­sively lose con­trol over an in­creas­ing part of the ter­ri­tory,” Rus­sian Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Mikhail Bog­danov, Moscow’s Mid­dle East en­voy, said dur­ing hear­ings at a Krem­lin ad­vi­sory body.

Still, Bog­danov gave no im­me­di­ate sig­nal that Rus­sia would change its pro-Syria stance at the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, where Moscow has shielded Da­m­as­cus from world sanc­tions.

The U.S. com­mended Rus­sia “for fi­nally wak­ing up to the re­al­ity and ac­knowl­edg­ing that the regime’s days are num­bered,” State De­part­ment spokes­woman Vic­to­ria Nu­land said.

“We call on Rus­sia to work with us ... work with the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers in Syria to start mov­ing to­wards a tran­si­tional struc­ture, and we would like to have their help in do­ing that,” she added.

Rus­sia’s ac­knowl­edg- ment that As­sad could lose the fight is an em­bar­rass­ing blow to the regime, and Bog­danov’s re­marks will likely be seen in Da­m­as­cus as a be­trayal of long­stand­ing ties.

The rebels, de­scribed by the Syr­ian government as ter­ror­ists, have made sig­nif­i­cant gains in re­cent weeks, seiz­ing large swaths of ter­ri­tory in the north and ex­pand­ing their con­trol on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal, push­ing the fight closer to As­sad’s seat of power.

The op­po­si­tion still faces enor­mous ob­sta­cles, how­ever, in­clud­ing the fact that some of its great­est bat­tle­field suc­cesses are by ex­trem­ist groups the West does not want to see run­ning Syria.

Sana / as­so­ci­ated press

Syr­ian ci­ti­zens gather in front of a build­ing de­stroyed by a car bomb in Qatana, 15 miles south­west of Da­m­as­cus, on Thurs­day

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