BEIRUT - Syria's vice president has acknowledged that the army cannot defeat the rebel forces trying to topple the regime and called for a negotiated settlement to save the country from ruin.

The rare, candid comments by Farouk al-Sharaa, a longtime close aide to President Bashar al-Assad's family, suggested his embattled regime may be contemplating an exit strategy as rebel forces move closer to Damascus, the capital. He spoke in an interview published Monday by Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.

"I don't see that what the security forces and army units are doing will lead to a definitive victory," Sharaa was quoted as saying in the interview conducted in Damascus.

"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 pushed for a negotiated political settlement that includes the formation of a national unity government with wide jurisdiction.

His comments coincided with a step-by-step peace plan for Syria outlined by Iranian officials on Sunday. It would be capped by 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 initiative.

"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, U.S. State Department spokesperson 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, a longtime loyalist to the Assad family, 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 suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, 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 Shiite 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. A Sunni from the southern town of Daraa, birthplace of the Syrian uprising, Sharaa's silence since the start of the uprising made him a prime candidate for rumors that he broke with the regime.

His comments after a long silence suggest he may have been given a green light to sound out readiness for a political settlement.

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 in the capital 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.