Russia says rebels may win as Syria minister wounded
Moscow admitted on Thursday that its longtime Damascus ally might lose its battle with Arab- and Western-backed rebels a day after a deadly bombing wounded the Syrian interior minister.
The comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov appeared to be the first public acknowledgement by a senior Russian official that the increasingly bloody 21-month conflict in Syria might culminate in victory for the rebels.
They came as a new bomb attack targeting an army residential block killed 16 people in a government-held town outside Damascus, further highlighting the regime's vulnerability even around the capital.
Bogdanov said that Arab and Western governments' recognition of the armed opposition on Wednesday as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people had emboldened the rebels to press their military campaign rather than seek the negotiated solution championed by Moscow.
"They (the rebels) are saying that victory is not far away, 'let's take Aleppo, let's take Damascus'," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.
"The recognition of the opposition, the training with rebel fighters and the weapons from abroad are now only inspiring the opposition."
In recent weeks, the rebels' capture of a series of key army bases has given them control of large swathes of the northwest and the east, and Bogdanov said military defeat for President Bashar al-Assad's regime could no longer be ruled out.
"As for preparing for victory by the opposition, this, of course, cannot be excluded," the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him as saying.
"You need to look the facts in the eyes -- the government regime is losing more and more control over a large part of the country's territory."
The latest bombing, in the town of Qatana, southwest of Damascus, struck near an elementary school, and children made up seven of the dead and many of the 23 wounded, state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
In a video posted on a pro-government Youtube channel which could not be independently verified, children's schoolbags and exercise books were seen strewn across the pavement among pools of blood.
The bombing followed a triple bomb attack on the interior ministry on Wednesday that killed at least five people and put Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar in hospital with a shoulder injury sustained when his office ceiling collapsed, a security source told AFP.
The source said a betrayal within the interior ministry's own protection service had made possible Wednesday's attack, using a booby-trapped car and two other devices.
"It is impossible to get near the ministry gate except in an official vehicle," the source said, adding that the minister was not seriously wounded.
"He was taken to hospital but his condition gives no cause for concern and he should be discharged rapidly."
It is the second time Shaar has been wounded in an attack.
He narrowly escaped being killed in a spectacular July 18 bombing that claimed the lives of four other top security officials, including the defence minister and Assad's brother-in-law.
The military launched air strikes against rebel positions along the Damascus airport road, which was briefly closed by rebel fire late last month, and in the town of Daraya southwest of the capital, the Syrian Observatory said.
The army has also been resorting to Scud missile strikes against rebel targets in zones now beyond the range of artillery, a US official said on Wednesday.
The unguided Scud, famously fired into Israel by Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, can deliver a payload of 3,500 kilos (7,700 pounds) or more over a range of 200 kilometres (125 miles) or more, defence analysts say.
An AFP correspondent reported repeated missile firings into the rebel-held northwest since the fall of a key base west of second city Aleppo on Monday but was unable to say if they were Scuds.
Karim Bitar, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), said the regime's use of Scuds was an indication it was bracing for a decisive battle.
"The battle for Damascus is about to begin and this battle could change the rules of the game," he said.
"The regime could transform into a militia ... especially after the statements by Bogdanov recognising that the regime could lose this war."
© 2012 AFP