A Free Syrian Army rebel fights government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday. (Andoni Lubaki, Associated…)
MOSCOW — Russia is sending two airplanes to evacuate scores of its citizens from longtime ally Syria, Moscow said Monday, in the latest signal that the Kremlin may be preparing for the collapse of President Bashar Assad's government.
The airplanes will fly to neighboring Lebanon on Tuesday and transport more than 100 people back to Russia, a spokeswoman for the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry told Russian media. The evacuees are reportedly mostly women and children.
Russia has already disclosed contingency plans for a massive naval evacuation of thousands of its nationals living in Syria. Russia this month plans to carry out large-scale naval operations in the Mediterranean, not far from the coast of Syria, though Moscow has not publicly linked the naval maneuvers to an evacuation blueprint.
It was not clear whether the planned airlift indicates that the Kremlin views Assad's fall as imminent.
Russian officials have insisted that Moscow has no vested interest in the survival of Assad's government, though Syria stands as the Kremlin's last major Arab ally. But Moscow opposes U.S.-backed efforts to topple the regime and has voiced fears of an Islamic militant takeover and Iraq-style anarchy if Assad is ousted. Russia has called for a negotiated end to Syria's conflict.
A Russian Foreign Ministry official said last month that Syrian rebels could emerge triumphant, the first such public acknowledgment from a high-ranking Kremlin official.
Syrian authorities still maintain tight control of the capital, Damascus, but broad swaths of the countryside — and much of the northern city of Aleppo, the nation's commercial hub — have fallen into rebel hands. The rebellion against Assad's rule broke out almost two years ago and has cost at least 60,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Apart from being caught in the escalating violence, Russians in Syria may face retribution because of Moscow's standing as Assad's major international defender. Some Syrian opposition figures have said that Russian citizens in Syria are legitimate targets because of Moscow's support of Assad.
The number of Russian citizens being flown out on the two planes is only a fraction of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Russians and Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union now residing in Syria. One Russian observer called the arrival of the two planes a trial balloon for possible large-scale evacuations.
Damascus and Moscow have had close political, commercial and cultural ties since the Cold War era. Many Syrian men received scholarships to study behind the Iron Curtain and eventually married women from Russia and other Soviet republics, often moving back to Syria with their brides and families. Syria has also been a major client for Russian weapons and military gear, and some Russian defense technicians reportedly remain in Syria.
But being a Russian in war-ravaged, profoundly polarized Syria may now be risky.
Last month, two Russian steel plant workers were abducted in Syria, and a Ukrainian journalist, Anhar Kochneva, has reportedly been held since October by Syrian rebels who are demanding a $50-million ransom.
Nonetheless, a Russian journalist based in Damascus said Monday that Russians in Syria were generally not desperate to leave the country and many are confident that Assad will hold on to power.
"No one believes that the opposition forces can capture Damascus," Yelena Gromova, a reporter for Sovetskaya Rossiya, a Russian daily, said in a telephone interview from the Syrian capital. "The only thing to be really afraid of are random terrorist attacks."
Russia leases a naval logistics base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus. The base has frequently been mentioned as the jumping-off point for a seaborne evacuation of Russians.
The Russian fleet now in the Mediterranean includes about a dozen warships and 600 marines, signaling a major presence, said Alexander Golts, a defense expert at the Yezhednevny Zhurnal online newspaper. The marine contingent, Golts noted, "may be enough to capture and hold a landing strip inside Syria if things get from bad to worse there."
The Syrian government on Monday blamed "terrorists" — its standard term for armed rebels — for an attack on high-tension power lines that cut overnight electricity to much of Damascus and areas to the south of the capital. Electricity was gradually being restored as repairs were made, the government news agency said. Authorities say rebels have regularly attacked the power grid, fuel lines, bridges and other infrastructure targets.
Loiko reported from Moscow and McDonnell from Beirut.