Russia, which has provided military and political support key to the Syrian regime, acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that President Bashar Assad is losing control and the rebels may win the civil war that has dragged on for 21 months and claimed an estimated 40,000 lives.
“The current trend is that the regime and government in Syria are increasingly losing control and territory. Unfortunately, you can’t rule out a victory by the opposition,” he added in remarks reported by Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news service.
The Obama administration welcomed the Russian assessment.
“We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Russia must “withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it’s material support [or] financial support,” she added.
Russia, which has a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, has provided Mr. Assad with heavy weapons, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and helicopter gunships over the course of the civil war. Moscow has also provided him political cover at the United Nations by vetoing, along with China, three Security Council resolutions that sought to find a solution to the conflict.
“I think the Russians are realizing that they are on the wrong side of history. They don’t want to abandon [Mr. Assad], and they are very much against any foreign intervention to precipitate regime change. But they are staring the reality in the face that Assad is fighting a losing battle,” she said.
Syria’s opposition has made substantial political and military gains over the past few weeks.
President Obama on Tuesday formally recognized a new opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The next day, at a Friends of Syria conference in Morocco, more than 100 countries lined up behind the coalition, formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
“Each month, Assad seems more desperate, and the opposition seems to control more of Syria,” said Daniel Byman, deputy director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Much depends on the loyalty of the elite Syrian military units. The regime could hold on for quite some time if they remain faithful. However, the growing prospect of defeat, and the possibility that key allies like Russia are edging away from the regime, make their defection or desertion more likely,” he added.
The rebels have made significant gains on the ground, particularly in the capital Damascus, Deir al-Zour in the east and in Aleppo in the northwest, where they have overrun military bases.
“You see a strategic shift in which the rebels are now actively targeting the regime’s supply lines and air bases as a way to limit its effectiveness in the air, which is the rebels’ biggest weakness,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
The rebels have seized enough arms and ammunition from the bases to last for a month of fighting in the north, according to multiple rebel sources inside Syria who spoke on background.
Despite these setbacks, the regime still has plenty of firepower. In Damascus, Mr. Assad has two military divisions that are largely intact and have not seen much fighting.
“For what it’s worth, the regime still has a significant arsenal,” said Ms. O’Bagy. “It is premature to say the regime is on its last legs. In areas where the regime has strategic interests, it can continue to defeat the rebel offensive.”
She said the only way the rebels will be able to take over the cities and notch up strategic victories is if they get a substantial boost in weapons capability and training. The rebels have received arms from their Persian Gulf allies. However, the United States has been reluctant to provide weapons out of concern that they will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
The resistance suffered a setback this week when the State Department designated the rebel group, Jabhat Nusra, as an al Qaeda front and a foreign terrorist organization. The group is widely acknowledged as one of the more effective and better organized rebel units fighting the Assad regime.
“Even the moderates in the Syrian national coalition recognize that Jabhat Nusra is the most important fighting force on the ground,” said Ms. Ottaway.
Syrian opposition leader Mouaz Alkhatib on Wednesday urged the Obama administration to reconsider its designation of Jabhat Nusra as a terrorist organization.