(AP) Russia backtracks on statement about Assad’s fall
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
Russia issued a clumsy denial Friday of a statement from its point man on Syria, who said a day earlier that Syrian President Bashad Assad is losing control of the country. The Foreign Ministry insisted it is not changing its stance on the embattled Syrian regime.
Russia’s explanation _ that the official was characterizing the opinion of the Syrian opposition rather than stating Russia’s position _ did not jibe with the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who was quoted by all three leading Russian news agencies as saying Thursday: “there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” and adding that “an opposition victory can’t be excluded.”
The Foreign Ministry insisted in a statement Friday that Bogdanov was referring only to the claims of the “Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus.”
Bogdanov was speaking before the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. His statement marked the first official acknowledgment from Moscow that Assad’s regime may fall.
It was certain to have been seen as a betrayal by the Syrian ruler, further eroding his grip on power amid opposition successes on the ground and recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and other world powers. On Friday, European Union leaders planned to express strong support for a recently formed coalition of opposition groups, but stop short of calling on member states to offer diplomatic recognition.
While Bogdanov’s statement seemed to signal Russia’s attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad’s eventual defeat, the Foreign Ministry’s backtracking on that clearly indicated that Moscow has no intention yet to stop backing its ally.
Bogdanov’s comments were quoted verbatim by state-owned Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass, and also by Interfax. The Foreign Ministry on Thursday turned down the AP’s interview request.
Facing questions about Bogdanov’s statement during a briefing later Friday, Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said that Moscow is continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the agreement reached at an international conference in Geneva in June.
The ministry’s denial came about 22 hours after Bogdanov spoke, a long delay given that the deputy minister’s remarks were reported by Russian and international media and drew worldwide reaction.
Georgy Mirsky, a leading Mideast expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a top foreign policy think tank supported by the Russian government, said that Bogdanov may have slipped up by failing to coordinate his statement with his boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The clumsy denial issued by the Foreign Ministry could have been ordered by President Vladimir Putin himself, Mirsky said.
Mirsky said it would be difficult for Putin to dump Assad. “It would amount to a loss of face, look like caving in to Western pressure. That’s not in his character,” Mirsky said. “Russia is going to lose Syria anyway. But if it’s lost as a result of Assad’s ouster or killing or a coup by his own men, it wouldn’t look like Putin’s defeat. But he would look very bad indeed if even he doesn’t wait for Bashar Assad to go away.”
The U.S. quickly commended Russia on Thursday for “waking up to the reality” by acknowledging the Syrian regime’s impending fall, but Lukashevich lashed back, saying that “we haven’t fallen asleep.”
Asked about plans mentioned by Bogdanov to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from Syria, Lukashevich answered evasively that Russia is prepared for any possible developments, but refrained from any specifics.
Russia has joined with China at the United Nations Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad’s regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011. Moscow also has continued to provide the Syrian government with weapons despite strong international protests.
Asked if Beijing also foresees Assad’s demise and whether it plans to evacuate its citizens in Syria, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would take unspecified steps to protect Chinese nationals and appealed anew for a ceasefire and for a negotiated political transition.
At an EU summit of heads of state and government, a draft document said leaders will endorse further contacts with the Syrian opposition coalition. The head of the body, moderate cleric Mouaz al-Khatib, briefed EU foreign ministers Monday in Brussels on the situation.
Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.