A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his weapon during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, Sunday. The revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations estimate. (Andoni Lubaki/AP Photo)
MOSCOW — Russia is sending two planes to Lebanon to evacuate Russians from civil war-struck Syria, authorities said Monday, a move that appears to reflect Moscow’s increasing doubts about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ability to stay in power.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said two of its planes were scheduled to fly to Beirut on Tuesday to carry more than 100 Russians from Syria.
Russia has been Assad’s main ally since the start of the conflict in the Arab state in March 2011, using its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions.
But it has recently begun to distance itself from the Syrian ruler, signaling it is resigned to him losing power. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia realizes the need for change in Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that it has contingency plans in place to evacuate thousands of Russians from Syria, most of them Russian women married to Syrians. Only a few thousand have registered with Russian consular officials.
Russian officials said both planes and sea vessels could be used in the effort.
A squadron of Russian Navy ships is currently in the Mediterranean for a planned exercise near Syrian shores later this month. Military officials earlier said that the exercise will simulate both the landing of marines and taking people on board from the shore.
Russia’s naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus is the only such facility it has outside the former Soviet Union.
Assad has dismissed calls that he step down and proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution.
But the Syrian opposition has insisted that he can play no role in a resolution to the conflict, which according to the United Nations has left more than 60,000 people dead since March 2011.
The Syrian government on Monday blamed a rebel attack on a key power line for a blackout that hit Damascus and much of the country’s south overnight, leaving residents cold and in the dark amid a fuel crisis that has stranded many at home.
The Syrian capital’s 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts as the country’s conflict has damaged infrastructure and sapped the government’s finances. But some said Monday that the overnight outage was the first to darken the entire capital since the conflict began.
The blackout hit residents especially hard because of rampant fuel shortages and below-freezing temperatures. Getting gas requires waiting in hours-long lines at stations, and cooking fuel and diesel for portable heaters has grown scarce and expensive — forcing people to find other ways to keep warm.
“We covered ourselves from the cold in blankets because there was no diesel or electricity for the heaters,” said retired teacher Mariam Ghassan, 60. “We changed our whole lives to get organized for power cuts, but now we have no idea when the power will come or go.”