U.S., rebels urge gloomy Moscow to help oust Assad

BEIRUT,  (Reuters) – Syria’s rebel leadership and the United States seized on Russian pessimism over President Bashar al-Assad’s future to urge Moscow to help push its ally into ceding power and end the battles closing in around his capital.

“We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered,” the U.S. State Department spokeswoman said after a senior Kremlin envoy conceded publicly on Thursday that Assad’s opponents could win the 20-month-old civil war.

“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?” U.S. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added in Washington.

In Marrakech, where his new coalition won recognition from other international powers as the legitimate leadership of Syria, rebel political leader Mouaz al-Khatib said he believed Russia, ally and arms supplier to the Assad dynasty since Soviet times, was looking for ways out of its support for a lost cause.

“I believe that the Russians have woken up and are sensing that they have implicated themselves with this regime, but they don’t know how to get out,” al-Khatib told Reuters. He held them “particularly responsible” for helping Assad with arms but said Moscow need not “lose everything” in Syria if it changed tack.

Under President Vladimir Putin, wary since last year’s Libyan war of what Russia sees as a Western drive to use the United Nations to overthrow national leaders it dislikes, Russia has blocked U.N. efforts to squeeze Assad, who has also had strong support from his long-time sponsor Iran.

But Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and the Kremlin’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, was quoted as saying in Moscow: “One must look the facts in the face.”

“Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.” The Syrian government, he said, was “losing control of more and more territory” and Moscow was preparing to evacuate Russian citizens if necessary.

Nuland said Bogdanov’s comments demonstrated that Moscow now “sees the writing on the wall” on Syria and said Russia should now rally behind U.N. efforts to prevent a wider bloodbath.

“They can withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it is material support (or) financial support,” she said. “They can also help us to identify people who might be willing, inside of Syria, to work on a transitional structure.”

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