Reports that Assad Lives on Russian Warship Likely False

There is little incentive for the Syrian president to flee his country yet, experts say.

Protesters hang Syrian President Bashar al-Assad`s picture during a rally on May 31, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey, possibly foreshadowing his punishment if apprehended by Syrian rebels.
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Reports that the Syrian president has been living on a navy ship off the coast of his wartorn country under Russian security are likely false, experts say.

Saudi Arabian news service al-Watan issued unconfirmed reports that family and senior advisors of Bashar al-Assad have joined the president on board a warship in the Mediterranean, secured by Russian operatives. Assad uses a helicopters to travel to Syria, reports al-Watan. This story has been re-reported by Israel's Y Net News, Business Insider, and UPI, all citing the same unconfirmed source.

Expert observers of Russian foreign policy and the behavior of the Syrian president, including the U.S. State Department, say this is likely untrue.

"There's no reason for [Assad] to be on a warship in the Mediterranean," says Syria specialist Michael Weiss, a columnist with Middle East news website NOW Lebanon. "He has to be in Damascus, because that's where he's running the whole war machine."

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Al-Watan is so far the only news service to report on the rumors independently. Private intelligence company Stratfor points out Riyadh has a vested interest in making it appear Assad—a vocal critic of the Saudis as a U.S. ally—does not feel safe in his home country.

"If things had come to that point then he would have lost Damascus," says Kamran Bokhari, Stratfor's vice president of Middle Eastern affairs, adding that the Saudi government is working "feverishly" to topple Assad and his Iranian allies.

The Russian government supports Assad's efforts to crush Syria's rebellion, Weiss says, such as printing currency for the regime and supplying arms. But hosting the Syrian leader in an effort to protect him would go against the Russian's own interest, says Weiss, formerly cochair of the Russian Studies Center at the London-based Henry Jackson Society.

"If he were looking to flee, it's possible the Russians would give him safe passage out of Syria. They would not host him, they would take him somewhere else," he says.

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"To host him on a warship sends the kind of signal his hold on power is kind of slipping and the Russians are preparing some kind of exit strategy for him," Weiss adds. "Things aren't dire enough for him to leave just yet."

Rebel fighters have captured roughly 70 percent of Syria, but most of that is rural territory. They remain locked in intense fighting with regime-loyal forces in and around urban centers like Aleppo and Damascus, the capital.

If Assad were to flee, he would likely retreat to the strategic mountainous stronghold of Latakia from which he could wage a chemical weapons campaign.

Joshua Landis, Syrian expert with the University of Oklahoma, predicts the Assad regime will survive to 2014. The academic, author of politics newsletter Syria Comment, accurately stated Assad would make it through 2012.

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The Syrian ruling regime continued its violent assault on its own people Monday as it bombed areas around Damascus in an attempt to quell rebel fighters, the AP reported. This follows the regime's use of Scud missiles and cluster bomb attacks. Human rights organizations, including the United Nations, believe more than 60,000 have died since fighting began in March 2011.

Assad strategically keeps daily body counts below 100, Weiss says, to attract minimal attention from Western countries on the brink of intervention. The United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid, as well as non-lethal supplies such as cameras to document atrocities and post them to YouTube, but has fallen short of military intervention.

"The U.S. government has given [Assad] every reason to believe he can carry on this way, and there will be no consequences," says Weiss.

The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands have sent six Patriot batteries and hundreds of troops to the Turkish border with Syria to deter or defend against missile strikes. It is unclear if those forces are willing to engage in a preemptive strike.