Syria fears ruin, seeks peace plan

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 9:45 p.m. MST

Syrians warm themselves at a refugee camp in Azaz, Syria, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Thousands of Syrian refugees who fled their homes due to fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces, face cold weather as temperatures dropped to 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) in Azaz. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Associated Press

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 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 rebel factions — marks one of the clearest signals yet that Iran's leadership is looking to hedge bets and remain a player in Syrian affairs if Assad is toppled.

"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 British analyst Anthony Skinner.

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