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Russia Sending Evacuation Planes for Citizens in Syria

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Russia is, for the first time, sending two planes to evacuate Russian citizens who want to leave Damascus. The planes are expected to arrive on Tuesday and together can carry about 100 people.

“On instructions from the Russian government, the emergencies ministry will send two planes – an Il-76 and a Yak-42 – to Beirut so that Russians could leave Syria,” a spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry said in a short statement, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

This is the first voluntary evacuation that Russia has organized for its citizens in Syria. Russia has reportedly also drawn up plans to evacuate far greater numbers if there is demand.

There are, by most estimates, tens of thousands of Russians living in Syria. Many are wives of Syrian men -- a legacy of the Syria's Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union. As a result, it's unclear how many want to leave their lives and families in Syria.

This move comes just a week after Russia shut down its consular office in Aleppo. The embassy in Damascus remains open.

Still, it will raise more questions about whether Russia thinks its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be able to hang on to power. Russia has resisted calls to back Assad's ouster, remaining staunchly opposed to international intervention, but it has stepped up diplomatic efforts in recent weeks that some observers think is as much an indication about where Moscow thinks things are going after nearly two years of conflict.

This weekend Russia launched its largest naval operations in decades in the eastern Mediterranean near Syria. It's been interpreted by some analysts as a signal that Moscow remains opposed to international meddling there, but others note that the exercise is expected to include drills that could be used in a larger evacuation.

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