MOSCOW: Russia realizes changes in Syria are needed but is concerned that the push to unseat President Bashar Assad’s regime could plunge the country even deeper into violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.
Putin’s assessment came just a week after Russia’s top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad’s forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.
At his annual hours-long news conference, Putin said Moscow stands for a settlement that would “prevent the country from breakup and an endless civil war. “Agreements based on a military victory can’t be effective,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime as it fights an increasingly strong armed opposition. That has brought substantial criticism of Russia as effectively supporting the regime, but Russia has said its stance isn’t aimed at propping up Assad.
“We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what’s going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years,” Putin said. “Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”
“We are worried about another thing: what happens next,” he said. “We don’t want to see the opposition come to power and start fighting the government that becomes the opposition, so that it goes on forever.”
Russia wants “people to come to an agreement on how they will live further and how they will ensure their safety and their participation in governing the country and then start changing the current order based on those agreements.”
Rebels fight for strategic town
On Thursday, rebels thrust into a strategic town in Syria’s central Hama province, pursuing a string of territorial gains to help cut army supply lines and cement a foothold in the capital Damascus to the south.
Rebels said they have made a series of advances across the country, seizing several military installations and more heavy weaponry, hardening the threat to Assad’s power base in Damascus 21 months into an uprising against his rule.
Rebels said a day earlier they had captured at least six towns in Hama province. On Thursday heavy fighting erupted in Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and another battleground.
The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels were trying to take checkpoints in Morek, one of which they had already seized, and described the town as a critical position for the Syrian army.
“The town of Morek lies on the Damascus-Aleppo road ... it has eight checkpoints and two security and military headquarters. If the rebels were able to control the town they would completely sever the supply lines between Hama and Damascus to Idlib province,” the group said in an e-mail.
Idlib is in the rebel-dominated north bordering on Turkey.
The British-based Observatory has a network of activists across the country. Activist reports are difficult to verify, as the government restricts media access into Syria.
Fighting in Hama could aggravate Syria’s sectarian strife as it is home to many rural minority communities of Alawites and Christians. Minorities, and particularly the Alawite sect to which Assad himself belongs, have largely backed the president. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has been the engine of the revolt.
“Rebels are trying to take Mohardeh and Al-Suqaylabiya, which are strongholds of the regime and are strategic. The residents are Christian and the neighboring towns are Alawite. The rebels worry security forces may be arming people there,” said activist Safi Al-Hamawi, speaking on Skype.
Assad’s forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with bouts of heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.
A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances, but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.
Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.
But rebels said on Thursday they were negotiating to put the camp — actually a densely packed urban district — back into the hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.
Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.
Despite warnings of continued violence, a video released by activists on Thursday showed dozens of people returning to Yarmouk. Most of the people in the footage were men, suggesting entire families may not be venturing back yet.
“There are still negotiations going on between the Palestinians and the rebels. The rebels want control of the checkpoints to be sure they can keep supply routes open to central Damascus,” said a rebel who asked not to be named.
“Palestinians want their fighters to run the checkpoints so the army will stop attacking and people can go home. But we are worried there are government collaborators among them.”
The fighter said rebels were looking to ensure their Palestinian allies could keep open access for rebels in Yarmouk, which they have described as a gateway to central Damascus.
Lebanon border post taken
Elsewhere, Syrian rebels took over an isolated border post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week, local residents tsaid.They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the remote Lebanese village of Tufail.
Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated Dec. 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around a small, single-story army checkpoint.
“This is the end of you, Bashar you dog,” one of the fighters said. The remains of two army trucks, which the rebels said had been blown up, stood nearby on a single track dirt road crossing a flat brown plain between snow-capped mountains.
The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria’s northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.
Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim Al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.
Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.
The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors not only from the army but from the government as well, though only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.