MOSCOW: One of Syria's key allies has admitted for the first time that the Assad regime is losing the ground war, as rebels said they were occupying more territory and besieging government troops in many parts of the country.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said the regime faced possible defeat to the rebels, adding with unusual candour: "One must look facts in the face."
Russia has given Bashar al-Assad unstinting diplomatic and military support, but Mr Bogdanov said: "The tendency is that the regime and government of Syria is losing more and more control, as well as more and more territory. Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."
Rebels said they believed the 21-month conflict had reached a decisive tipping point, with Assad's military machine no longer capable of rolling them back. "The situation is excellent. We are winning. Not just in Aleppo but the whole of Syria," said Abu Saaed, a fighter in the northern rebel-held town of El Bab.
The US welcomed Russia's apparent change of emphasis. ‘‘We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered,’’ the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said.
‘‘I think 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 United States has called on all nations with influence in Syria to try to persuade Assad to quit and allow a political transition to begin.
‘‘Our concern is that if we do not all use our influence with those in Syria, we will have a further ripping of the fabric of the country,’’ Ms Nuland told journalists.
Other key international players appear to have come to the same conclusion as Moscow. In Brussels yesterday, Nato's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: "I think the regime is approaching collapse." He said it was only a question of time before the Assad government imploded.
Others in the region, however, cautioned that the final unravelling could be prolonged and bloody. "Assad's situation is very difficult," said one senior Arab source in the region. "But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust."
On the ground the Syrian war remains an asymmetric one. The rebels are short of ammunition and have mainly light weapons: machine guns, Kalashnikovs, and home-made rockets. The government has Scud missiles – fired for the first time this week at rebels in Aleppo – as well as Sukhoi jets and attack helicopters. It also has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, dispersed at between 40 and 50 sites across the country, a source of growing western concern.
Nonetheless, over the past three months the rebels have acquired fresh momentum. The Free Syrian Army - as well as jihadist military outfits such as Jabhat al-Nusra, outlawed by Washington this week - have overrun a succession of Syrian army bases and military schools, and is now turning the regime's weapons on them.
Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's deputy foreign minister
"Russia sent weapons to the regime. Now we are using these same weapons to kill the regime," Abu Saeed, from the al-Tawhid brigade, said.
The rebels have recently organised into a more cohesive fighting force and control much of rural Syria. They are closing in on Damascus, where there has been fierce fighting in the southern suburbs, and pressing other urban regime strongholds. The government has effectively abandoned large swaths of territory, and the rebels have set up their own passport control at the Kilis border crossing with Turkey. Kurdish militias have established their own autonomous zones in the mountainous north-east.
Guardian News & Media, Agence France-Presse