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Russia says Assad’s prospects fading

Rebel fighters carry heavy weapons as they prepare to fight against Syrian regime forces in the village of Kurnaz, close to the western city of Hama, on January 27, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/AAMIR QURESHI)

MOSCOW/DAMASCUS: Russia said the chances of Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller,” as fighting Sunday in southwestern Damascus shut a main highway from the capital.

Assad has long counted Moscow as an ally and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s remarks were the most vocal Russian statement yet that his days may now be numbered, although they come after predictions from France, an avowed enemy, and from neighboring Jordan that the Syrian president’s downfall is not imminent.

“I think that with every day, every week and every month, the chances of his preservation are getting smaller and smaller,” Medvedev said, according to the transcript of an interview in Russian with CNN that was released by his office.

“But I repeat again, this must be decided by the Syrian people. Not Russia, not the United States, nor any other country,” said Medvedev, whose administration has criticized Western, Turkish and Gulf Arab support for Syria’s rebels.

“The task for the United States, the Europeans and regional powers ... is to sit the parties down for negotiations, and not just demand that Assad go and then be executed like [Moammar] Gadhafi or be carried to court sessions on a stretcher like Hosni Mubarak.”

After Egypt’s veteran president Hosni Mubarak was toppled, Russia withheld its veto on a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing Western and Arab powers to provide military help to the rebels who overthrew Gadhafi in Libya.

Moscow has since blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing Assad out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed, but Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it was not trying to prop him up and would not offer him asylum.

Activists said rebels clashed with forces loyal to Assad in southwestern Damascus Sunday, seizing a railway station and forcing the closure of the main highway to Deraa in the south.

Footage posted on the Internet showed what activists said was a rebel attack on the station in Qadam district. One clip showed gunmen taking cover as gunfire could be heard. Another showed gunmen inspecting buildings by the track after what the narrator describes as the liberation of the station.

Another video showed black smoke billowing above concrete buildings, the result of what activists said was an air strike by Assad’s air force near the railway terminal.

Syrian media did not comment on the fighting around Qadam and restrictions on independent media make it difficult to verify reports from activists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group, said jets and artillery also struck targets in rebel strongholds to the east and south of the capital after fierce clashes there.

The fighting came as United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos visited Syria ahead of a U.N. aid conference in Kuwait which aims to raise $1.5 billion for the millions of people made homeless, hungry and vulnerable by the conflict. At the global forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday Amos said Syrians were “paying a terrible price” for the failure of world powers to resolve the conflict, pointing to 650,000 refugees who have fled the country and the millions affected inside Syria.

Most of the money from the Kuwait conference will go to support neighboring countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, while $519 million is earmarked for aid inside Syria.

Medvedev said Assad did not appear to be ready for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

“He should have done everything much faster, attracting part of the moderate opposition, which was ready to sit at the table with him, to his side,” the Russian premier said. “This was his significant mistake, and possibly a fatal one.”

But he also warned of consequences if Assad is thrown out by force: “Then the civil war will last for decades.”

However, Iran made its strongest warning to date Saturday that it could intervene militarily to help Assad’s regime.

An aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Syria held a key position among a group of Middle Eastern powers opposed to U.S. and Israeli influence in the region.

“Syria plays a very key role in supporting or, God forbid, destabilizing the resistance front,” said Ali Akbar Velayati. “For this same reason, [an] attack on Syria is considered [an] attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2013, on page 1.

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