By Marco Giannangeli
PRESIDENT Putin was last night warned that he is taking a “big gamble” with the lives of 20,000 Russians in Syria.
In the bloodiest week since troubles began last year, Russian sources confirmed that despite deploying an assault ship and more than 250 marines near the port of Tartus, Moscow would not pick up its citizens trapped in the fighting.
“Russia is taking a big gamble, and the stakes are high,” warned Dr Jonathan Eyal, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
“Moscow has contingency plans, and it has also raised the possibility of Russian military intervention to rescue its citizens, but from my conversations with senior Russian figures, there is no plan to implement it.
“It is astonishing how far Putin has gone in supporting President Assad, even after it became quite clear that he was flogging a dead horse, and risking the lives of its own citizens in the process.”
His warning came as Assad’s tanks and helicopters launched operation Damascus Volcano, battling to reverse rebel gains in the capital after last Wednesday’s bombing which killed three top security chiefs loyal to Assad. Heavy clashes were also reported in Syria’s second city, Aleppo,
There were clear rebel gains on Thursday, including the Abu Kamal crossing, one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.
The leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, declared: “The regime is going through its last days.”
Russia has supported Assad throughout the conflict. With China, it last week vetoed a new British-led UN resolution for sanctions against the Assad regime.
Foreign Secretary William Hague branded Russia’s stance as “indefensible”.
Dr Eyal said: “Putin sincerely doesn’t believe he is losing this one. There is also a feeling in Moscow that the Syrians are the last remaining allies in the region. It’s all very well getting rid of Assad, they say, but does anyone know who will take his place? This is a sincere worry for Putin.
“Russia still sees itself as a world power and Syria is one of its satellites. Putin will be damned if he is going to relinquish it without trying to defend it.”
A British Army source revealed last night that former SAS soldiers are training Syrian rebels in Iraq in military tactics, weapons handling and communications systems.
More than 300 have passed through a base just inside the Iraq border, while a command course is run in Saudi Arabia.
Groups of 50 rebels at a time are being trained by two private security firms employing former Special Forces personnel. “Our role is purely instructional teaching tactics, techniques and procedures,” said a former SAS member.
“Some of these guys are shopkeepers and schoolteachers who have lost everything.
“If we can teach them how to take cover, to shoot and avoid being spotted by snipers it will hopefully help.”
In Britain, military commanders have drawn up contingency plans to evacuate UK passport holders from Lebanon and Jordan if violence spills over from Syria.
A joint naval exercise with France, codenamed Exercise Cougar 12, would be headed by a Royal Naval assault ship, HMS Bulwark, and carry 650 Royal Marines from 45 Commando.