The first Russian citizens evacuated from Syria have arrived in Moscow in what is viewed as the clearest sign yet the Kremlin may be preparing for President Bashar al-Assad's possible defeat.
Two planes carrying 77 Russian citizens flew from Beirut, the Lebanese capital, on Wednesday for the first time since the Syrian conflict began nearly two years ago.
The move to rescue tens of thousands of Russians living in Syria signals the beginning of what could become a difficult and dangerous operation as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust President Assad's regime.
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Although it has made no indication that it will abandon its position that Assad's exit must not be a precondition for a peace deal.
Those on board were mainly women married to Syrians and their children. After disembarking their flight they were taken by bus to Beirut, Lebanon, and then flown to Moscow. The first of two planes landed shortly after 0100 GMT on Wednesday.
Victoria Nuland, the US State Department spokeswoman, said the overnight evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria "speaks to the continued deterioration of the security situation, and the violence that Assad is leading against his own people”.
Russia has been Assad's main foreign protector during a 22-month uprising against his rule, but a diplomat conceded last month the government had lost territory and the rebels fighting Assad could win the war.
Moscow is also carrying out what has been called the largest naval exercises since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, including off Syria's coast, which analysts say are meant to underscore its interest in the region.
Moscow leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at the Syrian port of Tartous and has had a large presence of employees from Rosoboronexport, Russia's state arms exporting monopoly.
A number of citizens from Russian companies that also have a presence in Syria still live there too. Russian officials say there are tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Syria, many of them also Russian women married to Syrian men.
Meanwhile, around 5,900 Syrian refugees crossed into Jordan in the last 24 hours, according to border police, the Petra state news agency reported on Tuesday morning.
Around 200,000 Syrians have entered Jordan legally since the start of the revolution and have rented homes or moved in with relatives.
Jordan is concerned about this large influx in light of little assistance provided from the international community to host them.
'It can become protracted'
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said on Tuesday that the scale of violence in Syria made a negotiated settlement "inconceivable," suggesting that no diplomatic end to the crisis is in sight.
"Damascus... which has been a city for the longest period of time, is carpet-bombed," said Prince Saud al-Faisal. "How can you conceive of the possibility of a negotiated settlement with somebody who does that to his own country, his own history, to his own people?"
He urged the United Nations Security Council to take urgent action to end the crisis.
But Russia, a key Syrian ally, likely would not support any such resolution at the Security Council, nor would China. The Russian government expressed fear on Tuesday that the conflict could drag on for months or years more, with no clear outcome.
"You know, at first, the forecasts were two to three months, four, and it is already two years," said Mikhail Bodganov, the deputy foreign minister, in remarks quoted by Russian news agencies.
"So the situation can develop in different ways. I think it can become protracted in nature."
Bodganov also said the Russian foreign ministry wants to have more contact with the various Syrian opposition groups scattered around the world.