SYRIA-CRISIS:Russia says Syrian rebels might win
By Steve Gutterman and Oliver Holmes
MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are gaining ground and might win, Russia's Middle East envoy said on Thursday, in the starkest such admission from a 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 quoted Mikhail Bogdanov as saying. "Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."
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.
Advancing rebels now hold an almost continuous arc of territory from the east to the southeast of Damascus, despite fierce army bombardments designed to drive them back.
The head of NATO said he thought Assad's government was nearing collapse and the new leader of Syria's opposition told Reuters 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. The international community has been in a slumber, silent and late (to react) as it saw the Syrian people bleeding and their children killed for the past 20 months," he added in the interview on Wednesday night.
He did not specify whether by intervention he meant a no-fly zone that rebels have been demanding for month, a ground invasion - which the opposition has warned against - or arms shipments.
He said the opposition would consider any proposal from 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 25 km (15 miles) southwest 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. State news agency SANA said 16 people had died.
State television blamed the blast on "terrorists" - its term for rebels - and showed footage of soldiers walking by a partly collapsed building, with rubble and twisted metal on the road.
The attack follows three bombs at the Interior Ministry on Wednesday evening, in which state news agency SANA said five people were killed, including Abdullah Kayrouz, a member of parliament from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
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 Assad, such as Jaramana, where twin bombs killed 34 people in November.
The Pakistani Foreign Office said on Thursday security concerns had prompted it to withdraw the ambassador and all Pakistani staff from the embassy in the central suburb of East Mezzeh, a couple miles from the Interior Ministry.
BACK TO THE WALL
Insurgents launched an offensive on Damascus after a July 18 bombing that killed four of Assad's closest aides, including his feared brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, but were later pushed back.
With his back to the wall, Assad is 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 on Thursday.
U.S. NATO officials said on Wednesday the Syrian military had fired Scud-style ballistic missiles, which are powerful but not very accurate, against rebels in recent days.
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.
The British-based Syrian Observatory said war planes were bombing rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus on Thursday and artillery was hitting Daraya and Moadamiyeh, southwestern areas near the centre where rebels have been fighting for a foothold.
At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests which were met with gunfire by Assad's security forces, and which spiralled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab revolts.
The United States, European powers and Arab states bestowed their official blessing on Syria's newly-formed opposition coalition on Wednesday, despite increasing signs of Western unease at the rise of militant Islamists in the rebel ranks.
Western nations at "Friends of Syria" talks in Marrakech, Morocco rallied around a new opposition National Coalition formed last month under moderate Islamist cleric Mouaz Alkhatib.
Russia, which along with China has blocked any U.N. Security Council measures against Assad, criticised Washington's decision to grant the coalition formal recognition, saying it appeared to have abandoned any effort to reach a political solution.
Bogdanov's remarks were the clearest sign yet that Russia is preparing for the possible defeat of Assad's government.
"We are dealing with issues of preparations for an evacuation. We have mobilisation plans and are clarifying where our citizens are located," Bogdanov said.