Russia acknowledged for the first time Thursday that rebels are gaining in their effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and a top diplomat said Moscow is bracing for the possibility that its longtime ally could lose the bloody civil war that has dragged on for nearly two years.

There was no sign that Russia — Syria’s most powerful patron — would join other nations, including the United States, in supporting the opposition or pressuring Assad to step down.

But after Russia’s consistent sheltering of Assad from U.N. condemnation and other attempts to force him out, the statement from Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was an indication that even the strongest allies of the Syrian government are reckoning with the military and diplomatic gains that rebel forces have made in recent weeks.

“The opposition’s victory, regrettably, cannot be ruled out,” Bogdanov told a Kremlin advisory body on Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency. “We need to face the truth. A current tendency is that the regime and the government keep losing control over an ever-growing territory.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland commended the Russian government for “finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered.” But “the question now,” she said, is whether the Russian government would join an international push to aid and organize the Syrian opposition, and would stop supporting Assad.

Russia has had major trade and cultural ties with Syria dating to the Soviet Union, and it has been reluctant to turn away from its only reliable ally in the Middle East. But Bogdanov’s comments suggested that his government is beginning to confront what might happen if Assad’s regime falls, despite Russia’s best efforts to protect it.

Russia’s goals then would include extricating its citizens living in Syria and attempting to preserve relations with whoever succeeds Assad. Bogdanov said Thursday that Russia was trying to locate its citizens in Syria and was “preparing for a possible evacuation. We have mobilization plans.”

Russia’s official support for Assad remains unwavering, driven in part by a sense that there is still no alternative.

“In Moscow, you will find very few people who believe that after Assad, Syria will remain a governable state,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a political analyst. “The Russian Foreign Ministry, in fact, is very much realistic. They have no illusions. They understand what is happening there.”

But in what may have been an attempt to readjust slightly, Bogdanov said that about half of the Russians in Syria support the opposition. He noted that Russian citizens have joined opposition delegations that have visited Moscow.

‘Only a question of time’

In Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Assad’s government appears to be “approaching collapse,” the Associated Press reported. Rasmussen said the defeat of the Syrian military and the fall of the government was “only a question of time.”

Rebel forces have captured at least a half-dozen Syrian military bases in the past two weeks, and they besieged the country’s main commercial airport, in Damascus.

Interactive: Recent events in Syria

The Syrian military has struck back hard, dropping bombs and firing artillery shells around Damascus, Aleppo and smaller cities. On Wednesday, the United States and NATO said Syria had used short-range ballistic missiles against rebel forces in recent weeks, a heavy-handed tactic that analysts said could be a sign of desperation. The Syrian Foreign Ministry, which describes the rebel forces as “terrorist groups,” on Thursday denied the accusation.

Meanwhile, the violence continued, with reports of two car bombings on Thursday. One blast killed at least 16 people and injured 23 in the town of Qatana in Damascus province, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. Opposition activists reported a second bombing in a Damascus suburb called Jdeidet Artouz, with 17 people feared killed.

Opposition groups estimate that at least 40,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict. 

On Tuesday, President Obama announced U.S. recognition of the recently formed Syrian Opposition Coalition, and on Wednesday, more than 100 governments met in Morocco and threw their support behind the group. “Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and should stand aside to allow a sustainable political transition,” a declaration issued at the meeting said.

At the same time, the United States and other Western powers remain wary about some armed factions within the rebel movement. The Obama administration this week designated one of the rebel military groups, the al-
Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, as a global terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

Change of heart

Over the course of Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters and rebel fighters over the past 20 months, Russia and China have vetoed three tough sanctions resolutions at the U.N. Security Council that were intended to punish the Syrian government.

The United States has been trying to get Russian support for an international transition plan for Syria. At the State Department, Nuland called on Russia “to withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it’s material support, financial support.”

At the same time, she said, the Russians can “help us to identify people who might be willing, inside of Syria, to work on a transitional structure. . . . They have a lot of contacts in Syria.”

At least one anti-government activist appeared to scoff at the change in message from the Russian government on Thursday.

“ ‘Finally, you’re waking up to the truth?’ ” the activist, who uses the nom de guerre Majd al-Shami, said via Skype.

“Russia has been standing on the side of the regime since the very first day of the revolution in Syria,” the activist added. “Logically, they cannot let go of the regime that easily or even fight against it, regardless of the international political situation.”

Dehghanpisheh reported from Beirut. Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung in Washington and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.