Russia said scaling back its support for Assad

According to a-Sharq Al-Awsat, Moscow has recalled over 100 experts and diplomats; refuses to repair Syrian fighter jets

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Russia is gradually turning its back on Syrian President Bashar Assad, evacuating some 100 expert advisers and their families from Syria and refusing to repair regime fighter jets, an Arab daily reported on Sunday.

“Senior sources in the Gulf” told pro-opposition London-based daily a-Sharq al-Awsat that the change in Russia’s position toward the Assad regime stems from diplomatic pressure exerted by Arab Gulf states. It also comes as part of Moscow’s efforts to shake international sanctions imposed on it following a military confrontation with Ukraine, the sources said.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition sources told the newspaper that 100 of Russia’s top specialists have recently left the country through the Latakiya airport in northwestern Syria, and were not replaced. Russia has also downsized its embassy staff in Moscow over the past three months, manning its delegation with “essential staff” only.

Russia’s refusal to repair Syrian Sukhoi fighter jets has forced Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jasim al-Freij to travel to Iran last month in a bid to place diplomatic pressure on Moscow, the daily noted.

Russia has been one of Assad’s staunchest allies since the eruption of opposition protests in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011, which then evolved into a full-fledged civil war. Russia has supplied Assad with weapons and professional expertise, as well as diplomatic backing against anti-regime decisions in the UN.

The report followed a particularly bloody day for Syrian civilians on Saturday. Barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft reportedly killed over 100 men and children in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria in what opposition groups in the country called “the largest massacre perpetrated by the regime this year.”

Meanwhile, Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera, which is supportive of the Syrian opposition, reported that Iran has sent 1,500 soldiers from the Revolutionary Guard to the Latakia province Friday, reinforcing local pro-Assad militiamen and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon deployed in the region.

Last Thursday, opposition forces grouped under the Fath Army — a conglomerate of anti-Assad units including al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front — captured the town of Ariha, the westernmost regime-controlled town in Idlib province. The opposition is now closer than ever to the regime’s Alawite strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.

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