Russia said to agree Syria's Assad must goUnited Press International
Russia agreed to try to sway Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, a Turkish official said, as NATO was to OK Patriot missile defenses for Turkey Tuesday.
A senior Turkish official told The New York Times after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Istanbul, Turkey, that Moscow was "softening" its "political tone" and would look for ways of getting Assad to relinquish power.
Russia has said it is not wedded to Assad, but the official suggested Moscow was now more motivated to find an alternative after Putin acknowledged Assad seemed unwilling to depart.
After the meeting, Putin told reporters, "We are neither protecting the regime in Syria nor acting as their advocate, but remain worried about Syria's future."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Moscow would meet intensively with Syrian opposition groups based inside the country in the coming month.
The possible Russian shift came amid a flurry of diplomatic and military activity.
Bogdanov said for the first time Russia was ready to evacuate tens of thousands of its citizens from Syria. He told ITAR-Tass Moscow would arrange for planes to help them escape Syria's increasing instability.
"Due to the situation, we recommend Russian citizens not to go to Syria," he said.
The United Nations also began pulling out non-essential staff from Syria and the European Union said it reduced activities in Damascus "to a minimum" as regime forces bombarded opposition strongholds with artillery and airstrikes in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep rebel forces from advancing into Damascus, the capital.
U.S. President Barack Obama warned Assad any use of chemical weapons against rebel forces or anyone else would be met with a severe international response.
"I want to make absolutely clear to [Assad] and those under his command: The world is watching," Obama said at a nuclear non-proliferation conference in Washington. "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
A Western diplomat confirmed to the Times U.S. intelligence officials had grave concerns Syrian leaders would use missiles topped with chemical warheads in a desperate last effort to survive.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry repeated earlier statements on state television the regime "would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances."
Meanwhile, Lebanon's al-Manar satellite television reported Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi was fired for making statements that did not reflect the regime's position.
Activists said he defected to Beirut, Lebanon, where he met his family. He then flew to London, Syrian National Coalition presidential adviser Wael Merza was quoted by al-Jazeera as saying.
Makdissi's whereabouts could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Makdissi, part of Syria's Christian minority, previously worked at the Syrian Embassy in London.
Al-Manar said Makdissi was fired for saying in July Syria would use chemical weapons only against a foreign invasion. Syria prefers not to acknowledge having chemical weapons.
Separately, opposition activists said rebel forces shot down a Russian MiG warplane in a Damascus suburb, while Turkey dispatched F-16 jet fighters after two Syrian jet strikes on a border city sent refugees and shrapnel into Turkey, Ankara said.
The strikes in Ras al-Ain caused panic in the adjoining Turkish border-crossing town of Ceylanpinar, Ankara said.
At the same time, NATO foreign ministers were widely expected to give political backing Tuesday to Turkey's request for Patriot missile batteries.
Ankara requested the missile-defense systems last month to help it protect its border areas after learning Syria was considering using chemical weapons in Soviet Cold War-era Scud and North Korean SS-21 Scarab tactical ballistic missiles against rebel forces.
Those missiles could easily stray into Turkey, as Syrian army artillery shells and mortars have done, Turkish officials said.
The 28 NATO ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were to meet in Brussels Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Patriots, which diplomats say will be configured to shoot down ballistic missiles and not aircraft, will be provided by the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, The Wall Street Journal reported.