Manu Brabo, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syria's most powerful ally, Russia, said Thursday that President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war, the first time Moscow has acknowledged the regime is cracking under the force of a powerful rebellion.
NATO also predicted Assad's fall, with Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen saying the regime's collapse is "only a matter of time."
"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 said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body.
Bogdanov also said Moscow is preparing to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Syria, where nearly two years of violent conflict have killed more than 40,000 people and turned Assad into a global pariah. His statement marks a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat at a time when rebels are making significant gains.
Opposition fighters have seized large swaths of territory in northern Syria along the border with Turkey and appear to be expanding their control outside of Damascus, pushing the fight closer to Assad's seat of power in the capital. In a Damascus suburb, a bomb blast Thursday near a school killed 16 people, at least half of them women and children, the state news agency SANA reported.
A day earlier, the U.S., Europe and their allies recognized the newly reorganized opposition leadership, giving it a stamp of credibility and possibly paving the way for greater international aid to those fighting Assad's forces.
At the same time, international condemnation of the regime has grown more intense as Western officials raise concerns that Assad might unleash his chemical weapons stockpiles against rebels in an act of desperation. On Wednesday, the U.S. and NATO said Assad's forces had fired Scud missiles at rebel areas.
Syria denied the Scud allegations, calling them nothing more than a conspiracy.
But the NATO secretary-general said the military alliance detected the launch of a number of the unguided short-range missiles inside Syria earlier this week.
"We can't confirm details of the missiles, but some of the information indicates they were Scud-type missiles," he said at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"In general, I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it's only a question of time."
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, said Bogdanov's statement may reflect new information about the situation on the ground.
"A public statement like that appears to indicate that the balance is shifting," he said.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist based in a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs in central Syria, said he is encouraged by Bogdanov's comments because Russia is in a position to know about the strength of Assad's forces.
"The Russians know his capabilities and his military force. Russia knows what warplanes and what weapons he has," Abu Bilal said via Skype. "The Free Syrian Army is on the verge of strangling Damascus and this indicates that the regime is reaching an end," he added, referring to the main rebel fighting force.
Despite Russia's acknowledgement that Assad could lose, 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.
Bogdanov also 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.
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