MOSCOW – Russia issued a clumsy denial Friday of a statement from its point man on Syria, who said a day earlier that Syrian President Bashar 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 Friday 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. On Friday, 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.
This was reinforced by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who was in Moscow on Friday to meet with Bogdanov and his boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "There have been no changes in Russia's position," Jamil told journalists after the meeting. "Russia stands for dialogue and against foreign interference."
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 Friday, Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said that Moscow is continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the agreement reached at an international conference in Geneva in June.
"Our only goal is to end the violence in Syria as quickly as possible, start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition, and work out a formula for advancing a political process," Lukashevich said. "There hasn't been and there won't be any retraction from our principled line on the Syrian affairs."
The ministry's denial came about 22 hours after Bogdanov spoke, a long delay given that the deputy minister's remarks were reported by Russian and international media and drew worldwide reaction.
Georgy Mirsky, a leading Mideast expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a top foreign policy think tank supported by the Russian government, said that Bogdanov may have slipped up by failing to coordinate his statement with Lavrov, the foreign minister. The clumsy denial issued by the Foreign Ministry could have been ordered by President Vladimir Putin himself, Mirsky said.
"Bogdanov went very far, and the question is whether he coordinated his statement with Lavrov," the analyst said. "If he didn't, he may have gotten himself in trouble. They might have reported it to Putin, and Putin might have called Lavrov."
Mirsky said it would be difficult for Putin to dump Assad. "It would amount to a loss of face, look like caving in to Western pressure. That's not in his character," Mirsky said. "Russia is going to lose Syria anyway. But if it's lost as a result of Assad's ouster or killing or a coup by his own men, it wouldn't look like Putin's defeat. But he would look very bad indeed if even he doesn't wait for Bashar Assad to go away."
The U.S. quickly commended Russia on Thursday for "waking up to the reality" by acknowledging the Syrian regime's impending fall, but Lukashevich lashed back, saying that "we haven't fallen asleep."
"We haven't changed our position and we won't," he said.
Asked about plans mentioned by Bogdanov to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from Syria, Lukashevich answered evasively that Russia is prepared for any possible developments, but refrained from any specifics.
"We have relevant plans for any difficult situation, and they are being constantly adapted to the rapidly changing situation," he said. "Especially in Syria, where we are seeing conditions for ... our diplomats and compatriots becoming increasingly difficult, naturally we have plans."
Russia maintains a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, serving Russian navy ships on missions to the Mediterranean and hosting an unspecified number of military personnel. Russia also has an unspecified number of military advisers teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons, which make up the bulk of Syrian arsenals.
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars' worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear.
Russia has joined with China at the United Nations Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad's regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011. Moscow also has continued to provide the Syrian government with weapons despite strong international protests.
Asked if Beijing also foresees Assad's demise and whether it plans to evacuate its citizens in Syria, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would take unspecified steps to protect Chinese nationals and appealed anew for a ceasefire and for a negotiated political transition.
"China is deeply worried about the continuing violent conflict in Syria and always believes that a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian issue is the only way out and also serves the shared interest of the international community," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily media briefing.
At an EU summit of heads of state and government, a draft document said leaders will endorse further contacts with the Syrian opposition coalition. The head of the body, moderate cleric Mouaz al-Khatib, briefed EU foreign ministers Monday in Brussels on the situation.
"We must now set ourselves the objective of forcing Bashar Assad to leave as quickly as possible," French President Francois Hollande said on his way into the summit.