BEIRUT — The acknowledgment by Syria's vice president that the army cannot defeat the rebel forces trying to topple the regime is fueling speculation that President Bashar Assad is contemplating an exit strategy as opposition fighters move closer to the capital, Damascus.
Farouk al-Sharaa, the vice president and a longtime loyalist to the Assad family, called Sunday for a negotiated political settlement that includes the formation of a national unity government with wide jurisdiction.
''I don't see that what the security forces and army units are doing will lead to a definitive victory,'' Sharaa said in an interview published Monday by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.
''All these opposition forces can only conclude the battle to topple the regime if their goal is to push the country into chaos and a cycle of violence that has no end,'' he added.
Sharaa's candid words coincided with a step-by-step peace plan for Syria outlined by Iranian officials on Sunday. The plan called for Syrian elections that presumably could usher in a new leader in Damascus.
Tehran is Assad's closest and perhaps only remaining regional ally, and the initiative suggests its embrace of the Syrian president could be cooling.
The initiative — while almost certain to be rejected by Syrian rebel factions — marks one of the clearest signals yet that Iran's leadership is looking to hedge its bets and remain a player in Syrian affairs if Assad is toppled.
It was unclear whether Sharaa's comments were timed to coordinate with the Iranian statement.
There also were mixed messages last week from another of Assad's key international allies, Russia, which tried to backpedal after a top diplomat said Assad is losing control of his country.
''Despite his rhetoric, Bashar Assad may now be contemplating an exit strategy — one which would allow him to seek refuge abroad with his neck intact,'' said Anthony Skinner, an analyst at Maplecroft, a British risk analysis company.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the statement by Sharaa speaks to the pressure that the Syrian regime is under.
''Regrettably, however, it hasn't changed the regime's behavior, including the brutality it's inflicting on its own people,'' she added.
Sharaa, 73, has been a controversial figure since the start of the uprising. He appeared in public in late August for the first time in weeks, ending repeated rumors that he had defected.
The regime has had a string of prominent defections, though Assad's inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.
Assad and his inner circle are predominantly Alawites, a minority sect that is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
The opposition is dominated by the majority Sunni Muslims.
Early on in the uprising, the Syrian president delegated to Sharaa, a skilled diplomat, responsibility for holding a dialogue with the opposition. He is a Sunni from the southern town of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising.
Syrian rebels have made significant tactical advances in the past weeks, capturing air bases and military installations near Syria's largest city of Aleppo and Damascus.
On Sunday, an Islamist faction took an infantry base in Aleppo, a second army base that was captured from the troops in the northern city in a week.
Also, Western nations are talking of stepped-up aid to the rebels.
In October, the Turkish leadership appeared to be making a diplomatic push to promote Sharaa as a possible figure to head a transitional administration to end the conflict.
''No one knows the system better than Farouk al-Sharaa,'' Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the time, adding that Sharaa has not been involved in the violence and massacres.
The Syrian opposition is deeply fragmented, and various factions would probably disagree on whether they would accept him to lead a transitional government.
Sharaa, in the interview, said he was not seeking such a role.