DAMASCUS // Neither Bashar Al Assad's forces nor the rebels can defeat the other without destroying the country, Syria's vice president said yesterday.
Farouq Al Sharaa criticised the regime's handling of the uprising and called for an historic, internationally brokered settlement to end the civil war.
His comments to Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper considered broadly sympathetic to the Syrian authorities, are the most critical and outspoken public analysis of the crisis by a serving regime figure. They were also quoted extensively in both Arabic and English on the state run news agency, Sana, adding to a widely felt sense in Damascus that the interview was an overture by a regime seeking to portray itself as ready for a political solution.
"Maybe in the past we did not listen very carefully or take into consideration comments about the need for quick change … today we understand that change is inevitable," Mr Al Sharaa said.
He sketches out a political settlement involving the Syrian regime and opposition, regional states and the United Nations Security Council, and calls for a national unity government wielding "wide powers".
As Mr Al Sharaa points out in the interview, all the authority of government is concentrated solely in Mr Al Assad's hands.
"With every passing day the political and military solutions are becoming more distant. We should be in a position defending the existence of Syria. We are not in a battle for an individual or a regime," Mr Al Sharaa says.
"This problem gets bigger and deeper when some start thinking that victory and defeat are possible. The opposition forces combined cannot decide the battle of overthrowing the regime militarily, unless they aim to pull the country into chaos and an unending circle of violence. Meanwhile, I do not see that what the security forces and the army units are doing will reach a conclusive end."
The timing of the remarks could hardly be more pertinent. Heavy fighting is raging on the regime's doorstep in Damascus and rebels in the city talk as if victory is in sight.
Also, key ally Iran is newly pushing its own six-point plan to end the crisis, and Russian officials have been warning that Mr Al Assad may not win the fight. Moscow is the other major backer of the Syrian regime, and its main arms supplier.
"There is no doubt at all that Sharaa's comments were officially sanctioned, what we don't know is their real purpose," said an independent Syrian analyst in Damascus.
"He is either flying a kite for Assad, to show he is now genuinely ready to strike a deal to end this, or it is a trick designed to sow confusion and discord among the opposition, which is getting stronger all the time."
Adding to the puzzlement, if the Syrian regime really were looking to cut a political deal it could inform the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi or its Russian allies, rather than seek to do so through a newspaper interview.
Nevertheless, compared with typical public comments by regime figures, Mr Al Sharaa's remarks were extraordinary in their moderation and self-reflection. He is known as a moderate and intelligent man and, according to acquaintances, insisted from the start of the revolt in March 2011 that genuine reforms, not a security solution, were required.
In the interview, rather than talk of a sinister international conspiracy against Syria, he compares the uprising to the wave of overwhelmingly peaceful democratic revolutions in eastern Europe, that, in 1989, brought down the Berlin Wall and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He makes no real reference to "terrorists", a term sprinkled liberally throughout discussion by other officials and state media when referring to Mr Al Assad's opponents.
There had been no credible commission of inquiry into the behaviour of the security forces, he admits, and acknowledges the presence in jail of thousands of prisoners who had never been referred to the courts.
Rather than trying to portray the army as the impartial defender of national interests, he refers to it as "ideological", and going even further, says that neither the regime nor the opposition can claim to represent the Syrian people in their entirety.
If the interview is an effort to extend an olive branch, it may have come too late. More than 42,000 people have been killed since the uprising began, cities and towns have been demolished and millions of people are without adequate food, clothing and shelter, or have been forced from their homes.
"I agree with everything Sharaa said and it's all very nice, but we needed it in April last year, not now, now the only thing people want to do is to break this regime once and for all," said one resident of Qaboun neighbourhood in eastern Damascus.
"This is too little, and it's much too late," he said.
Fighting continued in Damascus yesterday and smoke from artillery and air strikes rose over the heavily populated southern and eastern districts. Opposition activists said at least 60 people had been killed nationwide.