Russia began a small-scale evacuation of about 100 of its citizens from Syria Tuesday, in what experts warn could at any moment develop into a huge air-and-sealift of the up-to-40,000 Russians and their dependents believed to be in the war-torn country.
Russian media reported that officials from the Russian Embassy in Beirut safely escorted three busloads of Russians, mainly women and children, out of Syria on Tuesday. Two planes sent to Lebanon by Russia's Ministry of Emergency Services will airlift about 100 people to Moscow, reports say.
The evacuation is being characterized as a limited operation aimed at bringing out a few people who have requested it. Without offering any further explanation, Russian official sources say the numbers of Russian citizens requesting repatriation has actually fallen, from about 1,000 last October to less than 100 in December.
But under the guise of ongoing war games in the eastern Mediterranean, the Russian Navy has, since last summer, maintained a squadron of warships. That squadron includes several huge amphibious assault vessels capable of carrying thousands of people, within a few hours sailing time of the Russian Naval supply facility in Tartus, Syria.
Earlier this month the fleets were rotated, and another squadron with at least five big troop transports was sent out to the region.
"This is absolutely not an evacuation; simply two flights from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry will bring to Moscow everyone who wishes to go," the independent Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Embassy in Damascus as saying of Tuesday's airlift.
"First of all, these are the people whose homes have been destroyed and who live in 'conflict hotbeds.' About a hundred people," an embassy source told Interfax on Tuesday.
Looking for signs
The move is being closely read by Western experts for signs that Moscow's long-standing position of support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad might be wavering, or that the Russian government anticipates his imminent downfall.
Experts say that, until we see those big transport ships moving in toward Tartus, we shouldn't assume any change in Russia's stance.
"The Russian authorities have already evacuated part of their diplomatic staff. Moscow is getting ready for a possible worsening of the situation and is taking preventive steps," says Vladimir Sotnikov, expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Experts say Russia has already closed its consulate in Syria's embattled main commercial center, Aleppo, and most Russian companies working in the country have long since withdrawn their own personnel.
"I don't see any change in the Russian position; Moscow has maintained the same stance for the past year and a half.... Assad still has some time, his army is still beating off opposition attacks, although the country is in full scale civil war," Mr. Sotnikov adds.
Who is left?
It's not known exactly how many Russians there are in Syria, but according to the Russian weekly Argumenti i Fakhti, the number is probably at least 40,000.
According to the paper, they include some of the tens of thousands of Syrian students who have studied in Russia since close relations between the two countries began in 1970, who have acquired Russian passports. Thousands of those students have married Russian women over the years and brought them to Syria; no one has an estimate for the number of children, who would also be eligible for evacuation.
Some members of Syria's Christian minority, which enjoys close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, may also be Russian passport holders, experts say.
While most big countries, including China, have already pulled their citizens out of Syria, Russia has been slow to take action, some experts say.
"Even in the foreign ministry they do not know how many Russians are now in Syria," says Vladimir Sazhin, an analyst with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
"Many of them are not registered with the Russian Embassy. Along with their children and other family members we may be looking at several tens of thousands," he says.
"We are seeing only the first stage of evacuation today, and it is happening very late. It is a sign that Russia is losing confidence in the situation being resolved any time in the near future.... But we had to start taking people out of that slaughterhouse much sooner," Mr. Sazhin adds.