Russia's actions regarding its citizens in Syria have been under close watch in the West, in hopes that it might signal an about-face from Syria's biggest foreign backer.
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Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday downplayed the evacuation of scores of Russians from Syria amid the ongoing turmoil there, insisting it was not the start of a mass evacuation from the country. But comments from the evacuees suggest that the situation for Russian citizens on the ground in Syria may be becoming untenable, as Kremlin support for the Assad regime puts Russians in rebels' sights.
At his annual press conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov officially confirmed that 77 Russian citizens had fled Syria on Tuesday and some 1,000 in total had requested Russia's help in leaving the country, reports the Associated Press. But Mr. Lavrov denied that the move was the start of a larger evacuation effort, and said Russia's embassy in Syria would continue to operate normally.
"As for the Embassy, we proceed from the assumption that there should be no non-essential staff there," Lavrov said. "Families have left long ago, but the Embassy is continuing to function in full. There are no other plans yet, or rather we have plans for any situation but there is no talk yet about implementing them."
Russia's actions regarding its citizens in Syria have been under close watch in the West, in hopes that they might signal an about-face from Syria's biggest foreign backer. The Kremlin has stood by the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as Syrian rebels have worked to topple him, but a massive exodus of Russia's citizens in Syria – who are believed to number in the tens of thousands – would likely signal that Moscow's support was coming to an end.
The Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir reported that experts say Tuesday's modest evacuation is a preparatory move, but not a signal of a change in Moscow's policy regarding Syria, at least not yet.
"The Russian authorities have already evacuated part of their diplomatic staff. Moscow is getting ready for a possible worsening of the situation and is taking preventive steps," says Vladimir Sotnikov, expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow....
"We are seeing only the first stage of evacuation today, and it is happening very late. It is a sign that Russia is losing confidence in the situation being resolved any time in the near future.... But we had to start taking people out of that slaughterhouse much sooner," [Vladimir Sazhin, an analyst with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says].
The Monitor notes that Russia has a large fleet, including several massive personnel transports, standing by in the eastern Mediterranean. Although the fleet is ostensibly participating in "war games," most observers agree that they are standing by should the order to evacuate Russian citizens from Syria be given.
That order has yet to be issued however, and at his press conference Lavrov reiterated Moscow's support of Mr. Assad, condemning as an "obsession" the rebels' insistence that he be removed from power before an end to the fighting.
"Everything runs up against the opposition members' obsession with the idea of the overthrow of the Assad regime. As long as this irreconcilable position remains in force, nothing good will happen, armed action will continue, people will die," Lavrov said, according to BBC News.
But that support of Assad could be spurring threats to Russia's citizenry, based on comments from the evacuees who arrived in Moscow on Wednesday, reports Reuters.
Alfred Omar, 57, a resident of Syria married to a Russian woman and dressed in an jacket from Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said Moscow's policies had begun to threaten its own citizens inside the country. His lower lip trembled as he spoke.
"It's dangerous there for Russians. If the Free Syrian Army understands that a person is Russian, they'll immediately cut off their head, because they (are seen to) support Assad's regime," he said.
The evacuees described the rebels as advancing on Damascus, the Syrian capital, as part of the reason for their flight.
"The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We've been left without money, without light, without water," Natasha Yunis, who ran a beauty salon in her adopted home of Damascus after meeting her Syrian husband, said of rebel advances on the capital.
"A bomb exploded near our house ... The children hid. Of course it was horrible," said Yunis, giving her age as about 60.