By Michael Lipin, VOA
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)
Syria's Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa is drawing attention for becoming the first senior Syrian official to publicly acknowledge that his government cannot win its battle against a 21-month rebellion.
His recent remarks to a Lebanese newspaper appear to reflect a government in dire straits as an international ground swell grows for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad while rebel forces continue to report gains, especially around the capital.
But the troubled Assad government seems not ready to give up, analysts say, and is depending on allies to pursue a diplomatic blueprint that allows the president stay in power.
As Western powers and other nations supporting the Syrian opposition demand that Assad leave office, his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, have been promoting Assad-friendly peace initiatives.
Pro-Assad forces have been under increasing strain in recent weeks as rebels seize territory near central Damascus, his seat of power.
In the interview, published this week by the Beirut-based newspaper Al Akhbar, Sharaa said the Syrian crisis has hit a stalemate.
Sharaa said Syrian security forces cannot reach a "conclusive" result with the opposition. He also said rebels cannot overthrow the government militarily "unless they aim to pull [Syria] into chaos and unending violence."
Sharaa, a Sunni, is not part of the inner circle of Assad, a minority Alawite who has been Syria's absolute ruler for 12 years.
But Sharaa's comments were republished in full by Syrian state news agency SANA, suggesting they likely had the president's approval.
Do Sharaa's remarks indicate that Assad has had a change of heart about how to end the fighting?
Tony Badran, a researcher at the New York-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, does not think so.
"If you parse through it, nothing in that interview actually is new in terms of policy," Badran said. "What it proposed was a dialogue with an unspecified counter-party, and it says nothing about the status of President Assad ... and the restructuring of [government] institutions and so on."
Sharaa said any peace settlement must involve an internal Syrian dialogue that leads to the creation of a national unity government. He made no mention of rebel demands that Assad be removed from power before a transition begins.
Sharaa also said Syria's current leadership believes that it has the ability to achieve the change that Syrians want, provided that it has "new partners."
Other Syrian officials repeatedly have called on Syrian opposition groups to abandon violence and negotiate with the government.
Assad's only remaining regional allies have been promoting similar ideas in recent days. Badran said the Sharaa interview may have been timed to support those efforts.
Under a six-point plan announced by Iran's foreign ministry on Sunday, Syria would hold a national dialogue involving the Assad government as a first step toward elections.
"Iran's initiative does not stipulate anything about the departure of Assad," Badran said. "He stays in power, and most importantly for Iran, the strategic orientation of Syria [as an Iranian ally] remains the same."
The leader of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech on Sunday, calling on Syrian rebels and foreign powers supporting them to stop rejecting dialogue with the Assad government.
"Those who believe that the armed opposition is capable of deciding the battle militarily are extremely mistaken," he said.
Badran said Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar's publication of the Sharaa interview was not a coincidence. "Ibrahim Amin, the chief editor who conducted this interview, is a Hezbollah guy," he said.
Al Akhbar describes itself as an organization that upholds "the highest standards of journalistic integrity while remaining true to the principles of anti-imperialist struggle."
Signs of desperation
Syrian opposition figures see another motive for the vice president's remarks - desperation.
Syrian rebels have made a series of military gains this month, moving into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus and seizing military bases around Aleppo.
The recently-formed opposition Syrian National Coalition also won recognition from more than 110 countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Speaking to Al-Arabiyah television this week, Paris-based coalition member Mundhir Makhus said Sharaa's admission that government forces cannot win reflects what he called the "dazzling successes" of the rebels.
He also described Sharaa's peace proposals as too little, too late, saying they have been "overtaken" by developments that will "settle things."
Researcher Badran said he doubts the Sharaa remarks will have much effect.
"The rebels are not in any way interested in sitting down right now for an initiative that will just give the regime breathing space," he said.
Other analysts echo Western and NATO leaders in saying the end of Assad's rule is only a matter of time.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, recently said the government has been losing military control of the Damascus environs.
Khashan said Syrian troops loyal to the regime have become fatigued, and that many troops are "no longer interested in fighting" and that the unending combat has started "getting to them."
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