BEIRUT (AP) — 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 Assad's family, suggested his embattled regime may be contemplating an exit strategy as rebel forces move closer to the capital Damascus. 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," al-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.
Al-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 al-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 al-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.
Al-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 al-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, al-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.
Also, Western nations are talking of stepped up aid to the rebels. And there were mixed messages last week from Assad's key international ally Russia, which tried to backpedal after a top diplomat said Assad is losing control of his country.
Al-Sharaa offered an unusually bleak public assessment of the civil war and even criticized how the government has handled the crisis.
"Every day that passes, the military and political solution gets more elusive," he said. "We need to be in a position to defend Syria. We are not in a battle for an individual or a regime."
In October, the Turkish leadership appeared to be making a diplomatic push to promote al-Sharaa as a possible figure to head a transitional administration to end the conflict.
"No one knows the system better than Farouk al-Sharaa," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the time, adding that al-Sharaa has not been involved in the violence and massacres.
The Syrian opposition is deeply fragmented, and various factions would likely disagree on whether they would accept him to lead a transitional government. Al-Sharaa, in the interview, said he was not seeking such a role.
Violence across many parts of the country, including a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, flared again on Monday.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States is "deeply concerned" by reports that dozens of civilians were killed or wounded in Yarmouk camp as a result of aerial bombardment and fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition.
At least eight people were killed in the airstrike on Yarmouk Sunday, according to Syrian activists.
Ninette Kelley, a Lebanon representative for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said 22 buses carrying 100 Palestinian families from Yarmouk crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours, fleeing the violence.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem claimed the clashes at the camp were triggered by the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group, which was designated by the Obama administration a terrorist organization last week. He warned Palestinians inside the camp not to harbor terrorist fighters.
Syria's official news agency SANA said Moallem's remarks were made during a telephone call with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Separately, Italy's government said three workers at a Syrian steel plant, including an Italian, have been kidnapped.
The Foreign Ministry did not say where or when the kidnappings occurred. But it said the plant is located in the regime stronghold of Latakia city on Syria's Mediterranean coast. The ministry statement said the two workers kidnapped with the Italian were citizens of other countries, but did not identify them further.
Sky TG24 TV in Italy reported the other two hostages are Russians, but there was no immediate confirmation of that.
AP writers Barbara Surk in Beirut, Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.