The ancient, once-bustling city has been devastated by war and even health clinics are forced to operate in secrecy to avoid being bombed. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Syria's most powerful ally, Russia, said for the first time Thursday that President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war.
While Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov gave no immediate signal that Russia would change its stance and agree to impose international sanctions on Assad's regime, his remarks will likely be seen as a betrayal in Damascus, The Associated Press reported.
Russia's assessment could further strengthen the hand of the rebels, who have made some significant gains in their offensive, capturing two major military bases and mounting a serious challenge to Assad's seat of power, Damascus.
"We must look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Bogdanov, the Foreign Ministry's point man on Syria, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber, according to the AP.
"An opposition victory can't be excluded," he added.
NATO also predicted Assad's fall, with Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen saying the regime's collapse is "only a matter of time."
"In general, I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it's only a question of time," he said.
Russia mulls evacuating its citizens
Bogdanov's statement marks a clear attempt by the Kremlin to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat.
He said that Russia is prepared to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Syria, although he didn't say when that might happen.
At the same time, Bogdanov reaffirmed Russia's call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.
"The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," he said.
"If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable,” he added.
Bogdanov repeated that Russia would stick to an agreement reached in Geneva in June calling for negotiations involving the government and the opposition.
Russia has joined with China at the United Nations Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad's regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011.
Moscow also has continued to provide the Syrian government with weapons despite strong international protests.
The Syrian military is now firing Scud missiles at rebel forces in the north from the Damascus suburbs -- and so far at least two of the Scuds have landed in civilian neighborhoods. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.
'The moment of collapse'
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, told the AP that Bogdanov's statement marked an effort by Russia to position itself for the fall of its ally.
"It's better to talk about it now than keep saying until the moment of collapse that things remain under control," he added.
The statement may also reflect new information about the situation on the ground received by the Kremlin, he told the AP.
"A public statement like that appears to indicate that the balance is shifting," Lukyanov added.
Asked if and when Russia is going to evacuate its embassy in Syria, Bogdanov said that the "moment hasn't come yet."
He added that the Foreign Ministry is looking at possible evacuation plans for thousands of Russian citizens, most of whom are Russian women married to Syrian men and their children.
"We have plans for any occasion," Bogdanov said.
He said that "half of them support the opposition," adding that Syrian opposition delegations that have visited Moscow have included some Russian citizens.
The Interfax news agency said that if the government decides to evacuate Russians from Syria, it could be done by ships escorted by the Russian navy and by government planes.
Tens of thousands trapped in city
Meanwhile, the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres said Wednesday that fighting in Syria had trapped tens of thousands of people in the city of Deir al-Zor and there was urgent need for medical teams to be authorized to evacuate the wounded, Reuters reported.
Deir al-Zor has become one of many urban battlegrounds in the 20-month-old revolt against Assad in which more than 40,000 have died. With daily army shelling and routes cut off by fighting, many residents are trapped.
"MSF appeals for international and impartial medical assistance to be officially authorized by the government and for such assistance to be respected by all parties of the conflict," the group said in a statement.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
More world stories from NBC News:
- 'Who is my Mandela?' South Africans consider icon's place in a changing world
- Royal prank call: Duped nurse was found hanging, also had wrist injuries
- Circumcision to remain legal in Germany
- Protests after shock verdict in Argentina sex slave trial
- China marks 75th anniversary of 'Rape of Nanking'
- Pope Benedict sends his first tweet
- Suspect in US envoy's killing in Libya arrested in Egypt
- Video: Penguins in Tokyo take over as Santa's elves