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Syrian leader may be losing control, Russian official says

December 13, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch

BEIRUT -- A top Russian official conceded Thursday that time may be running out for Moscow's close ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the latest in a series of car bomb attacks reportedly killed 16 outside the Syrian capital.

"We must face the facts: The possibility exists that the [Syrian] government may progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in Moscow, according to Russian news accounts. "An opposition victory can't be excluded."

The diplomat's remarks appeared to be the first time that a high-level Kremlin functionary publicly acknowledged that Assad's days may be numbered after an almost 21-month uprising that has seen tens of thousands killed, caused vast damage and left  large swaths of territory in rebel hands -- even as battles continue to rage across the country.

Bogdanov’s comments came as a string of car bomb attacks struck this week in and around Damascus, where government troops have been battling rebels. Syrian state media reported that Thursday's car bomb detonated near a school in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, killing 16 people, at least half of them women and children.

On Wednesday, state media reported that six bombs detonated  in and around the capital, killing at least eight people. Three blasts occurred outside the Interior Ministry building in the Kafarsouseh district, it was reported, killing a Syrian parliamentarian and four others and injuring 23.

Another bomb exploded Wednesday in a minibus in the capital’s Mazzeh 86 neighborhood, state media said, killing three, including a journalist. The Mazzeh 86 district, a frequent target of car bombs, is home to many security officials and adherents of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, whose members generally support the government  in the face of a rebellion led by members of the nation's Sunni Muslim majority.

Both sides in the bloody conflict have been accused of indiscriminate attacks.

Syrian rebels, outgunned by government artillery and air power, are making extensive use of car bombs and other improvised explosives. The blasts have killed and injured hundreds of  civilians, but insurgent leaders insist that the devices target government infrastructure and personnel. Experts say car bombs are an inexact weapon that inevitably kill passersby and other civilians.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has been engaged in what human rights groups call wholesale bombardment of civilian areas harboring rebels.

Though some Syrian rebels are predicting that Assad's beleaguered government may only last for weeks or months more, the Russian diplomat outlined a bleak scenario of protracted combat that will inevitably lead to 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, according to the Russian RT network. "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."

Moscow has called for Syrian peace negotiations that do not exclude Assad, whose family has ruled the country for more than 40 years. The armed opposition calls Assad a murderer who must go and cannot be part of any peace talks.

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 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has "decided to place all bets" on an armed victory by the opposition, RT reported, as others agreed that a negotiated settlement now seems unlikely.

"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 of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, wrote Thursday on his Twitter account, RT reported. "The only option now is war."

The Russian lawmaker voiced fears for the fate of Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Damascus. Syria is believed to be home to thousands of citizens of the former Soviet Union, including many women married to Syrian men who studied inside the eastern bloc during the Cold War era.

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-- Special correspondent Marrouch reported from Marrakesh, Morocco.

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