Several buses filled with Russian nationals were moved out of war-torn Syria and made it to Lebanon Tuesday.
This is the first time Russia, one of the few allies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, organized an evacuation for its citizens since the civil war began in March 2011.
Four busloads containing a total of 80 people, mostly women and children, made it to Lebanon, according to The Associated Press. Russian officials deployed two planes to the Lebanese capital of Beirut to pick up Russians who came from Syria, according to state broadcaster Russia Today.
The Russian embassy in Damascus downplayed sending its citizens to Lebanon, saying it was not an evacuation.
“Not all families, especially those who had their homes destroyed, who’ve been left without food and shelter, have the means to get to their home country,” a Russian diplomatic official, who was not named, was quoted by RT as saying.
“We are helping those who want to leave,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, according to Reuters.
On Monday, Moscow announced that it would pull around 100 people living in Syria out of the country. However, there are thousands of Russian women married to Syrian men living in the country, as well as Russians belonging to the government or military, who may have to be evacuated as the Syrian civil war drags on.
The number of Russians currently living in Syria is between 25,000 to 100,000, officials estimate, according to RT.
The decision to move Russians out of Syria has been viewed as a sign that Moscow’s support for the Assad regime is wavering—possibly out of fear that the government will fall.
“It’s a sign of distrust in Assad, who seems unlikely to hold on to power,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment, told NBC News.
And because Russia has supported the Assad regime through various means, including blocking three United Nations Security Council resolutions intending to pressure Assad to stop the killings, Malashenko said the Kremlin likely fears there will be a “massacre” of Russian citizens at the hands of rebel soldiers if Assad does fall.
Another Moscow-based analyst, Yelena Suponina, told the New York Times that “it is a symbolic moment, but not necessarily a turning point,” noting that the plans were set into motion likely because Russians were seeking a way out of the country.
She added that some Russian lawmakers also complained that Russians were starting to feel trapped in Syria, where an estimated 60,000 people have been killed in just under two years since the conflict began.
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