December 14, 2012 11:26:29 AM
MOSCOW -- Russia issued a clumsy denial today of a statement from its point man on Syria, who said a day earlier that Syrian President Bashad Assad is losing control of the country. The Foreign Ministry insisted it is not changing its stance on the embattled Syrian regime.
Russia's explanation -- that the official was characterizing the opinion of the Syrian opposition rather than stating Russia's position -- did not jibe with the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who was quoted by all three leading Russian news agencies as saying Thursday: "there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," and adding that "an opposition victory can't be excluded."
The Foreign Ministry insisted in a statement today that Bogdanov was referring only to the claims of the "Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus."
"In that context, Bogdanov again confirmed Russia's principled stance that a political settlement in Syria has no alternative," the ministry's spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said in the statement.
Bogdanov was speaking before the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. His statement marked the first official acknowledgment from Moscow that Assad's regime may fall.
It was certain to have been seen as a betrayal by the Syrian ruler, further eroding his grip on power amid opposition successes on the ground and recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and other world powers. Today, European Union leaders planned to express strong support for a recently formed coalition of opposition groups, but stop short of calling on member states to offer diplomatic recognition.
While Bogdanov's statement seemed to signal Russia's attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat, the Foreign Ministry's backtracking on that clearly indicated that Moscow has no intention yet to stop backing its ally.
Bogdanov's comments were quoted verbatim by state-owned Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass, and also by Interfax. The Foreign Ministry on Thursday turned down the AP's interview request.
Facing questions about Bogdanov's statement during a briefing later this morning, Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria.