Syrian rebels are gaining ground and might win, Russia’s Middle East envoy has conceded, in the starkest such admission from the major ally of president Bashar al-Assad in 20 months of conflict.
“One must look the facts in the face,” Russia’s state-run RIA news agency quoted Mikhail Bogdanov as saying. “Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
Mr Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and the Kremlin’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, said the Syrian government was “losing control of more and more territory” and Moscow was preparing to evacuate Russian citizens if necessary.
Jordan’s King Abdullah warned earlier this week that the Assad regime “can hold for two years at the military level, but not more than four months at the economic level”.
Syria has relied on war planes and helicopters to bombard rebel districts but Damascus yesterday denied accusations by US and Nato officials that it had fired Scud missiles in recent days.
The foreign ministry said the long-range missiles were not used against “terrorist groups,” a term it uses for the rebels, who now hold an almost continuous arc of territory from the east to the south-west of Damascus.
The head of Nato also said he thought the Assad government was nearing collapse and the new leader of Syria’s opposition said the people of Syria no longer needed international forces to protect them.
“The horrific conditions which the Syrian people endured prompted them to call on the international community for military intervention at various times,” said Mouaz al-Khatib, a preacher who heads Syria’s National Coalition.
“Now the Syrian people have nothing to lose. They handled their problems by themselves. They no longer need international forces to protect them,” he said in an interview, accusing the international community of slumbering while Syrians were killed.
He did not specify whether by intervention he meant a no-fly zone that rebels have been demanding for months, a ground invasion or arms. He said the opposition would consider any proposal from Mr Assad to surrender power and leave the country, but would not give any assurances until it saw a firm proposal.
In the latest blow to the government, a car bomb killed at least 16 men, women and children in Qatana, a town about 15 miles south-west of Damascus where many soldiers live, activists and state media said.
The explosion occurred in a residential area for soldiers in Qatana, which is near several army bases, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He put the death toll as 17, including seven children and two women.
Apart from gaining territory in the outskirts of Damascus in recent weeks, rebels have also made hit-and-run attacks or set off bombs within the capital, often targeting state security buildings or areas seen as loyal to the Assad regime, such as Jaramana, where twin bombs killed 34 people in November.
With his back to the wall, Mr Assad was reported to be turning ever deadlier weapons on his adversaries.
“I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse,” Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Human Rights Watch said some populated areas had been hit by incendiary bombs, containing flammable materials such as napalm, thermite, or white phosphorous, which can set fire to buildings or cause severe burns and respiratory damage.