Damascus // Bashar Al Assad is losing control of Syria and may be defeated by rebels, Russia admitted yesterday.
It is the first time the Syrian president's most powerful ally has acknowledged that the regime is buckling under the force of an increasingly powerful revolt.
The remarks by Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, were seen as significant internationally and inside Syria - a further indication that the tide is turning ever more decisively in the opposition's favour.
There were heavy clashes, air strikes and artillery barrages in the Damascus suburbs yesterday and the rebels now hold large swaths of ground in the north and east.
"One must look the facts in the face. The regime and government in Syria is losing control of more and more territory," Mr Bogdanov said. "Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."
Nato also said Mr Al Assad's days were numbered. "The regime in Damascus is approaching collapse," the alliance's secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. "I think now it's only a question of time."
Syria's state-run media made no reference to yesterday's comments. Sana, the official news agency, carried a series of stories in which Russian support for Syria and a peaceful political solution to the crisis was described as strong and unchanged.
However, the foreign ministry said claims that Scud missiles had been fired at rebels in Aleppo were part of an international conspiracy against Syria.
Nato said they had tracked the launch of the missiles, the first time such weapons have been used in the conflict.
Pro-regime figures questioned on satellite news channels over Mr Bogdanov's remarks insisted he had said no such thing, and that nefarious foreign media outlets were deliberately mistranslating his words.
"For Assad's supporters, it will not change much. They are just ignoring it. They do not believe it is possible such words could have come from the Russians," said an independent political analyst in Damascus.
But, he said, Moscow's longstanding Cold War ties with Syria, and its support to date for Mr Al Assad - it remains his key supplier of weapons and has shielded him from critical UN Security Council resolutions - meant it had excellent information about conditions inside the country.
"No one knows this regime and its security forces as well as the Russians, which only adds to the weight of this new assessment," the analyst said.
"It will certainly have an impact on the ground, for the rebels it will be a morale boost and for the so-called silent majority and independents it will be a sobering reality check." Nonetheless, Mr Bogdanov said a rebel victory, were it to happen, would take time and exact an enormous human cost. More than 42,000 people have already been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
"The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," Mr Bogdanov said. "If such a price for the removal of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."
Another 81 people had been killed nationwide by yesterday evening, the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, reported. A car bomb in Qatana, a town on the south-western edge of Damascus, killed 16 people, according to Sana.
On Wednesday car bombs exploded in Jaramana and Mezzeh - pro-regime areas of the capital - killing four people, and the heavily fortified interior ministry was also attacked, a series of bombings there killing five, including an MP.
Responsibility for the interior ministry attack was claimed yesterday by Al Nusra Front, a militant Islamist group that has played a key role in the fighting, and which was this week designated a terrorist organisation by the US over links to Al Qa'eda.
As the violence intensified, Russia has called for the implementation of the Geneva agreement on Syria, calling for negotiations between Mr Al Assad's government and opposition groups, a cessation of violence and a political transition. It has thus far come to naught, with international powers unable to agree on what the Geneva deal, brokered by the UN in June, actually entails.
Russia says it does not contain an automatic requirement for Mr Al Assad to stand aside while the US, which has backed the opposition, says the Geneva terms rule out any role for the Syrian president.
The Syrian crisis has become a proxy conflict, with Russia, China, Iran and Lebanese militants Hizbollah backing Mr Al Assad, while the West and Arab states have thrown their weight behind those seeking the regime's overthrow.
Underlining the growing seriousness of conditions, Mr Bogdanov also said Russia had plans in place to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens living in Syria, although he said it was too early to be talking about a possible evacuation of the Russian embassy in Damascus.
Russia maintains a huge fortified diplomatic compound in the city, befitting its role as Syria's Cold War benefactor. There are believed to be about 30,000 Russian citizens in the country, most of them married to Syrians. Russia also has military personnel in Syria, some of them stationed at the Tartous naval base.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press