Russia says Assad losing control as rebels gain strength

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A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon towards a Syrian military warplane (not pictured) in Aleppo's al-Amereya district December 12, 2012. REUTERS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is losing control and may be overthrown by an increasingly powerful opposition, Russia's deputy foreign minister said in the country's first official acknowledgement that the Syrian leader's days may be numbered.

"We have to look at the situation with open eyes," the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported Mikhail Bogdanov said. "The current trend is that the regime and government in Syria are increasingly losing control and territory. Unfortunately, you can't rule out a victory by the opposition."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said today that Assad's government is "approaching collapse." "I think now it's only a question of time," he told a news conference in Brussels.

Russia has supported Assad throughout the 21-month Syrian conflict, maintaining weapons supplies and giving political support by blocking the West's demands for action through the United Nations Security Council. While Bogdanov didn't indicate Russia would change its position at the UN, he went further than previously in acknowledging that the civil conflict, now estimated by opposition groups to have killed more than 41,000 people, will probably end with Assad's downfall.

"Russia is tired of Bashar al-Assad, his failed promises to defeat "˜terrorism'," Alexei Malashenko, Middle East expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone today. "He hasn't succeeded. Russia, with a massive delay, under pressure from events on the ground, is giving him up. Now the likeliest outcome is a military one that could lead to Assad fleeing or being killed, and a sectarian bloodbath."

"˜Without interference'

Russia's chief of general staff, Colonel-General Valery Gerasimov, indicated today that his country maintained its opposition to outside intervention in Syria.

"Our firm position is that only the two sides of the Syrian conflict are capable of resolving it, without interference from some third party, particularly if that were to involve the use of force," Gerasimov said, following talks with General Knud Bartels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military committee chairman, RIA Novosti reported.

Syria is Russia's last Arab ally. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, forged an alliance with the Soviet Union after taking over the presidency in a 1970 coup, receiving weapons and financial support during the Cold War.

Naval base

The relationship has continued. Since 2006, Syria has signed about $5.5 billion in arms contracts with Russia, according to estimates by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, which advises the Defense Ministry. Russia has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus, which also gives it access to the Mediterranean.

At least 17 people were killed, including seven children, and more than 20 wounded after a car bomb exploded at a housing complex for the Syrian army near an elementary school in Qatana, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was yesterday recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by more than 100 nations at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, a move that cements the group's status as a government-in-waiting. The rebels agreed a unified military command and called for the withdrawal of Iranian forces.

Thousands trapped

Tens of thousands of sick and wounded Syrians are trapped in the east Syrian city of Deir Ezzor and must be evacuated before winter sets in and medical supplies run out, the international charity Medicins Sans Frontiers said today.

"It takes four hours on foot to sneak into Deir Ezzor down alleys guarded by snipers," the charity's coordinator Patrick Wieland said by phone from Athens today. "We want a cease-fire, it's the only way we can evacuate people and bring in assistance."

Opposition groups declared Deir Ezzor a disaster area in October. The region holds oil and gas resources and is described by the opposition as the largest area free of government control.

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