A Damascus-based diplomat said Monday that Mr. Assad, despite official denials, is “totally aware” that he must leave and was “looking for a way out,” though the timetable is unclear.

“More importantly,” said the diplomat, who is currently outside of Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found.”…

But even if Mr. Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, Russian analysts say, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops.

“If he can fly out of Damascus,” Semyon A. Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow, said — at this, he laughed dryly — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him.”

Many Syrians still share Mr. Assad’s belief that he is protecting the Syrian state, which helps explain how he has held on this long.

He can stay in Damascus and cling to — even die for — his father’s aspirations, to impose a secular Syrian order and act as a pan-Arab leader on a regional and global stage.

Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority. That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalized minority concerned mainly with its own survival…

“More importantly,” said the diplomat, who is currently outside of Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found.”