Russia has begun a partial evacuation of its citizens from Syria, with 80 people crossing into Lebanon, where two military planes are waiting to fly them home. The move is being interepreted as a lack of faith by Moscow in the Syrian regime’s ability to safeguard Russian citizens from the civil war that is steadily consuming much of the country.
Up to 150 Russians will be flown home from Beirut, a three-hour drive from Damascus, where Syria’s main international airport has in recent months been a battleground for pro-regime forces and an opposition that has been fighting for nearly two years to oust the president, Bashar al-Assad.
A further 25,000 Russians, many of them married to Syrian nationals, are thought to remain in the country. Moscow says it has made no plans for a mass evacuation, but its warships remain on standby in the eastern Mediterranean.
“This is in no way an evacuation,” an unidentified Russian diplomat told the news agency Interfax. “These two emergencies-ministry flights will send to Moscow whomever wishes to go. These are mainly those whose houses were destroyed, who are from ‘hotspots’.
“We’re talking about around 100 people.” Embassy officials would remain in the country, the diplomat said.
Russia is keenly aware that a mass evacuation would signal it had given up hope of achieving the negotiated solution it has insisted upon to end the conflict, analysts said. However, Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister, said last month that evacuation plans had been drawn up.
All diplomatic efforts to bring the crisis to a halt have failed, and no new initiatives have been tabled by any diplomatic stakeholder since a speech by Assad earlier this month, which was dismissed by the main oppisition groups.
The regime insists it has been fighting a foreign-backed terrorist insurrection since the outset, in March 2011. The uprising against the regime began as a series of unarmed demonstrations against state rule, but by August of that year it had morphed into an armed uprising.
The conflict has intensified every month since, with al-Qaida-inspired groups taking prominent roles in many battles and friction with non-jihadist rebel groups growing markedly.
Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on Tuesday Moscow believed the conflict would be “prolonged”.
“In the beginning the prognosis was two to three months, and now it has already been two years. The situation can develop in different ways. I think it can take a prolonged character,” he said.
Most diplomatic missions in Damascus have been closed in recent months as the battle for the country edges ever closer to the regime’s power base. On most days over the past two months, Damascus has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Syria, with the southern half of the capital under a grinding rebel attack.
However, the regime’s grip on Damascus does not yet apear under threat. It maintains air supremacy and has made regular use of air force jets to bomb rebel positions and the communities that support them.
Rebel advances have been more pronounced elsewhere in Syria, particularly in the rural areas near Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Azzor and Lattakia.