BEIRUT, Lebanon — In a striking admission, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said on Sunday that the country’s army faced a manpower shortage and had ceded some areas to insurgents in order to hold onto other regions deemed more important.
Mr. Assad also acknowledged in a speech televised from Damascus, the Syrian capital, that many Syrians could not watch the address because of the lack of electricity in many areas and noted the economic hardships that people are facing after more than four years of an increasingly complex civil war.
What was unusual was not the fact of the struggles that Mr. Assad mentioned, which have been obvious for some time, but his mentioning them at all. It was his most substantive public nod yet to the magnitude of the challenges to his government and of the struggles confronting ordinary Syrians. In previous public speeches and interviews, he has sometimes seemed at odds with reality, glossing over setbacks and denying that the government is dropping barrel bombs in the northern city of Aleppo, a well-documented and regular occurrence.
The remarks came within an address that, overall, retained Mr. Assad’s usual confident, defiant tone — promising victory, praising the army, blaming foreign meddling for the war.
But they also came amid other indications of strain on the army and at a time when even Mr. Assad’s loyalists are increasingly expressing frustration that their leaders have not eased or even acknowledged their plight. Some also grumble about the growing military role of Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias, complaining that they are encroaching on Syrian sovereignty without producing victory.
On Saturday, Mr. Assad issued a general amnesty for Syrians who have avoided military duty or deserted the security forces — provided they have not joined the insurgency against him. He has issued amnesties in the past but has yet to release thousands of political prisoners, leaving many people mistrustful of this latest pledge.
Sunday’s speech also came as Hezbollah and Syrian troops are struggling to subdue the insurgent-held city of Zabadani. Their assault, which had been billed as quick and easy, has gone on for weeks, with many casualties on both sides and the opposition accusing the government of dropping hundreds of barrel bombs indiscriminately.
There has also been an intensifying campaign of army recruitment advertising in government-held areas, as even loyalist families grow more reluctant to send sons to the army rather than keep them home to defend their areas.
Mr. Assad’s acknowledgment of difficulties came amid a flurry of other developments that, taken together, have raised speculation about whether a new round of long-stalled peace talks, or at least the laying of groundwork for possible talks, could be taking place.
There have been whispers of a grand bargain being proposed that would unite Mr. Assad’s backers and opponents to fight against the Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has fed on the Syrian conflict and has come to be seen as a global threat. Blocking the way to any such deal is the deep divide over whether Mr. Assad will stay or go.
Still, the wheels of diplomacy have been more active than usual in recent weeks.
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy on the Syria crisis, has been shuttling among the war’s myriad parties and is expected to make a report and recommendations in the coming days to the Security Council.
The nuclear deal between global powers and Iran, Mr. Assad’s closest ally, has been signed. There have been high-level meetings between senior figures in Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful backer, and top officials from the United States and Saudi Arabia, two of his most powerful opponents.
Turkey and the United States have reached a new understanding that has seen Turkey, a major supporter of the Syrian insurgency, plunge with new enthusiasm into the battle in northern Syria against the Islamic State, which has burgeoned during the conflict. A government-sponsored conference in Damascus over the weekend also endorsed an international effort against terrorism.
And the fractious Syrian political opposition reached a milestone on Saturday, with a pact between the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile group based in Turkey, and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria.
The National Coordination Body is part of what is sometimes called the “inside opposition,” since some members remain in Syria — including in prison. It opposed the arming of the anti-Assad movement and has more prominent representatives from minority groups, including Alawites, from the same sect as Mr. Assad. He has sometimes referred to it as part of the “patriotic opposition” even while jailing some of its leaders.
Now, it has agreed for the first time on a pact calling for the departure of Mr. Assad as part of any political transition, giving the National Coalition a broader base of legitimacy in any future negotiations.
The conflict in Syria began with peaceful protests against Mr. Assad and turned into a civil war after a crackdown on demonstrators. But it has since become a three-way war, at least, involving the government, insurgents and the extremist Islamic State, which splintered off from a radical Islamist wing of the insurgency that gained strength as foreign fighters streamed into the country.
Mr. Assad’s government is backed by Iran, Hezbollah and thousands of foreign Shiite fighters playing an increasing role on the ground. Battling it are a range of insurgent groups. Relatively secular groups with limited American backing have lagged behind Islamist ones better financed by the American allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as private donors.
Then there is the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in areas it has seized and which is battling both rival insurgents and the government.
Earlier this year, army troops lost most of the northern province of Idlib to insurgents and lost the desert city of Palmyra to Islamic State militants, in both cases without putting up much of a fight.
“Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto,” Mr. Assad said Sunday. “We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn’t allow the collapse of the rest of the areas.”
Speaking to a meeting of trade groups, he added that the army was capable but suffered from “a shortfall in human capacity.”
He also declared that the West practiced a “double standard,” condemning terrorism at home but calling it “democracy and freedom” in Syria.
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(via NY Times)