“One must look the facts in the face. The tendency is that the regime and government of Syria is losing more and more control, and more and more territory,” Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on Thursday, Russian news agencies reported. “Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
“Today we are dealing with issues of preparing an evacuation. We have a mobilisation plan, we are figuring out where our citizens are,” he said. An estimated 5,300 Russian citizens live in Syria.
Bogdanov’s statement was the first time a Russian official has publicly considered the possibility of an opposition victory in the conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 40,000 people. Russia has stood by Assad, providing his regime with weapons and repeatedly blocking UN actions despite an international outcry.
Speaking during a hearing at the Public Chamber, an advisory body to the Kremlin, Bogdanov did not indicate that Russia had changed its stance and said the bloody price to be paid for Assad’s ousting was “unacceptable”.
“The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose ten of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people,” he warned. “If such a price for the ousting of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable.”
He said Syria’s rebels had been buoyed by arms shipments from abroad and increasing international recognition of Syria’s opposition coalition as the country’s legitimate representation.
The US president, Barack Obama, recognised the coalition during an interview on Tuesday.
“[The rebels] say that victory is no longer beyond the mountains – ‘soon we’ll take Aleppo, soon we’ll take Damascus’ – and that they already control 60% of the territory,” Bogdanov said.
He accused the west of waging a campaign to diminish Russia’s influence in the Middle East. “The expanded campaign by the west, with support from the Arab League, to distort Russia’s position on Syria is aimed at weakening our influence in the region and freezing future relations between Russia and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.”
Russia has firmly stood its ground on Syria after accusing the west of manipulating a UN mandate to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya in order to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gadaffi, who, along with Assad, was one of Moscow’s last few remaining allies in the region.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said Bogdanov’s statements marked a shift in Russian analysis of the situation, but would change little on the ground.
“This is a shift for sure. The question is: so what?” he said. “The Russian position has always been that we never endorse Assad personally. Russia was in favour of a political solution, a political solution failed and now the opposition will win. ‘That’s too bad’: that’s the thinking.”
“It’s a bad thing for [Russia’s] image, for status, but business as usual ended with Bashar al-Assad maybe a year ago because it was already clear then that normal co-operation and commercial contracts would not be possible anymore,” he said.