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Russia evacuates its citizens from Syria

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 9:48 p.m.

MOSCOW — The Kremlin's evacuation of Russians from Syria on Tuesday marks a turning point in its view of the civil war, representing increasing doubts about Bashar Assad's hold on power and a sober understanding that it has to start rescue efforts before it becomes too late.

The operation has been relatively small-scale — involving fewer than 100 people, mostly women and children — but it marks the beginning of what could soon turn into a risky and challenging operation.

Analysts warn that rescuing tens of thousands of Russians from the war-stricken country could quickly become daunting as the opposition makes new advances in the battle against the Syrian president.

“It's a sign of distrust in Assad, who seems unlikely to hold on to power,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office.

Russia has been Assad's main ally, pooling together with China at the United Nations to block international sanctions against his regime.

But it has increasingly distanced itself from the Syrian ruler, signaling it is resigned to the prospect of him losing power.

On Tuesday, four buses carrying about 80 Russians crossed into Lebanon, the first evacuation organized by Moscow since the start of the Syrian conflict nearly two years ago.

The land route was presumably chosen because of renewed fighting near the Damascus airport. One of two planes sent to pick up the Russians took off late Tuesday from Beirut for Moscow, and the other was set to take off soon, the Emergencies Ministry said.

Malashenko said the evacuation reflected a strong concern in Moscow that Assad's fall would put Russians in grave danger. “There is a strong likelihood that Assad's foes could unleash a massacre of those whom they see as his supporters,” he said.

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