Assad regime in ‘its last days’; family said to be in Moscow

Special to

LONDON — President Bashar Assad, his military and security forces
straining to contain Sunni rebels, was expected to flee Syria.

Diplomats said Assad could decide to seek safe haven in Russia, the
president’s leading ally.

Syrian President Bashar Assad meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in December 2006. /AP/File

Neither Assad or his younger brother, Maher, has been heard from since the July 18 attack. On June 20, the regime reported a fourth casualty from the bombing — intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar. Vice President Farouk A-Shaara was photographed attending a funeral of one of the casualties of the June 18 bombing.

“The [rebel] Free Syrian Army maintains a presence throughout Damascus, and the revolutionaries are wearing their official uniform, carrying weapons and carrying out their duties as normal,” FSA deputy commander Col. Arif Hammoud said.

Opposition sources and diplomats said Assad’s military and security
forces have reduced operations around Syria. They said most of the regime attacks have been deployed around the presidential palace, the headquarters of Maher’s 4th Division and other critical sites in the Syrian capital. On June 20, Damascus police headquarters was destroyed in a rebel attack.

“The regime is going through its last days,” Syrian National Council
president Abdul Basset Seida said.

The diplomatic sources said the president was believed to have sent
his wife and children to Moscow amid the rebel invasion of Damascus.

“That means he has accepted to leave, but in an orderly way,” Russia’s
ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said.

On July 20, Orlov told France’s RFI radio that Assad already signaled
his intention to step down before the July 18 bombing that killed his senior
aides. The ambassador cited the Geneva conference earlier this month that
called for the end of the Assad regime.

“This final communique was accepted by Assad,” Orlov said. “Assad
nominated his representative to lead the negotiations with the opposition
for this transition.”

Diplomats said the remarks by the Russian ambassador — later dismissed
by both the Assad regime and the Russian Foreign Ministry — represented a
major policy shift for the Kremlin. Until the bombing of Syria’s National
Security Agency, Moscow had insisted that Assad would remain in power, but
changed its mind as rebels took control of large parts of Syria.

“There”s momentum against Assad,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman
George Little said. “We’re seeing that with increased defections, a
strengthening where united opposition is operating across the country.”

Arab and NATO countries have sought to rapidly organize the Syrian
opposition. Diplomats said the focus was the formation of an interim
government that could take over when the Assad regime falls.

“We want a rapid transformation of a provision government that would
represent the diversity of Syrian society,” French Foreign Minister Laurent
Fabius said on July 21.

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