A Syrian rebel fighter cries during the funeral of a comrade in the town of… (Manu Brabo / Associated…)
MOSCOW — A high-level Russian diplomat conceded Thursday that Syrian rebels could succeed in ousting President Bashar Assad, becoming the first top Kremlin official to say publicly that the government of Moscow's staunchest Middle Eastern ally could be teetering.
The comments of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov came as two more explosions rocked the restive suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, the latest in a string of deadly car bombings that appear to be part of an insurgent offensive on the city.
"We must face the facts: The possibility exists that the [Syrian] government may progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Bogdanov told a Kremlin advisory body. "An opposition victory can't be excluded."
In Brussels, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told reporters that Assad's collapse was "only a question of time," a prediction now shared by much of the world, including Moscow.
But it was the blunt assessment from Russia — Assad's chief defender in the international arena — that seemed likely to add to the disquiet of a government already besieged by rebel forces and facing broad global condemnation.
Rejecting scenarios for a quick end to the conflict, the Russian diplomat painted a bleak picture of protracted combat and further mass casualties.
"The fighting will become even more intense, and [Syria] will lose tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of civilians," Bogdanov warned. "If such a price for the removal of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."
Adding to the sense of urgency, Kremlin officials confirmed that they were preparing for the evacuation of thousands of Russian citizens living in Syria, including many wives of Syrian men who studied in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era.
The Obama administration welcomed what it views as Russia's belated recognition of reality in Syria, and urged Moscow to help speed a transition in Damascus.
"We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a news briefing in Washington. "The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth, democratic transition?"
The Syrian government, meanwhile, denied as "untrue rumors" news reports that it had fired Scud missiles at rebel forces.
Despite the Russian diplomat's comments, experts said it was unlikely that Moscow would abandon Assad and "leave its ally in the lurch," in the words of Georgy Mirsky, an analyst with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
"In the end, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will say that Russia alone couldn't protect the Syrian … regime," Mirsky said.
"I am sure the Kremlin can see now that Assad can't win that war and will have to either quit and go, or stay and share the fate of Saddam [Hussein] and [Moammar] Kadafi," Mirsky said, referring to the former leaders of Iraq and Libya who were killed after their governments fell.
Analysts said it was unlikely that Moscow would help facilitate Assad's departure or abandon its call for negotiations to end the conflict.
"Russia is not changing its position on Syria," said Leonid Kalashnikov, who sits on the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. "We still insist that the sides should sit down and talk to resolve the crisis."
Moscow has called for peace negotiations that do not exclude Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. The armed opposition calls Assad a murderer who cannot be part of any peace talks and must go.
Russian officials were dismayed at this week's decision by the United States and more than 100 nations in the so-called Friends of Syria group to designate an opposition coalition as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.
The U.S., said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week, has "decided to place all bets" on an armed victory by the opposition, a viewpoint shared by many here.
"Recognition of the Syrian opposition as 'legitimate' authorities by the 'Friends of Syria' gives up on any attempts to find a political solution," Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, wrote Thursday on Twitter, according to the Russian television station RT. "The only option now is war."
The conflict is bearing down on Damascus, where heavy fighting has enveloped the city's outskirts and bombings have become a daily occurrence.
On Thursday, Syrian state media reported that car bombs had exploded in two suburban districts, killing 24 and wounding dozens, including many women and children.