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Vice president suggests Assad could leave

Syrian official seeks negotiated settlement

The Washington Post, AP

Syria’s vice president called Sunday for a negotiated end to the war that has raged for almost two years, saying neither the regime nor the rebels battling it can win on the ground.

Farouk al-Sharaa, in an interview to be published Monday in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, suggested that keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power is not necessarily a prerequisite for ending the war.

“We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence,” he added. “We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime.”

Rebels battling the government have insisted that Assad must cede power, or die, and it is unclear whether they would be receptive to the overture. But al-Sharaa’s remarks were the clearest sign yet that at least some of Assad’s close associates are contemplating his leaving office, if it will end a conflict that has caused more than 40,000 deaths.

Also Sunday, the Foreign Ministry of Iran, Assad’s closest remaining ally, issued a new plan for ending the violence in Syria that included the strongest indication yet that the Islamic republic hopes to maintain relations with Syria regardless of whether Assad remains in power.

While Iranian officials have for months stated that they would like to see an end to the fighting, they are believed to be supplying his regime with funds and weapons. But the statement, published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), suggested that Iran’s support of Assad is not unconditional.

Besides calling for an end to violence and the distribution of humanitarian aid, it said the Syrian government is “duty-bound to hold a free and competitive election to form a new Parliament and Senate to compose a constitution and hold presidential elections.”

The comments came on another day of intense fighting from the suburbs of Damascus to the northern border with Turkey. And they came as the pressure on Assad to step aside has been ramping up. Last week, a group of more than 100 nations formally recognized a Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Al-Sharaa, a former diplomat and foreign minister who has served the Assad regime for almost four decades, said in remarks translated into English on Al Akhbar’s website Sunday night that neither the regime nor the rebels can rule Syria.

“The opposition with its different factions, civilian, armed, or ones with external ties, cannot claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” he said, “just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties led by the Baath (Party), cannot achieve change without new partners.”

He called for a “historic settlement” that he said “must include stopping all shapes of violence, and the creation of a national unity government with wide powers.”

Earlier Sunday, Syrian jets dropped bombs on a decades-old Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus after days of clashes between Syrian rebels and Palestinians who support the government, opposition activists said.

The attack on Yarmouk camp, home to 150,000 Palestinians squeezed into 2.5 sq. km, underscored the ferocity of the government’s monthlong campaign to beat back insurgent gains in the Syrian capital. Warplanes also bombed rebel positions on a road to Damascus’ main airport.

A YouTube video, which could not be independently verified, showed streets strewn with debris and several bodies stretched out on the ground and on steps leading to what looked like a mosque. Though Yarmouk has been shelled repeatedly by the Syrian military, this is believed to be the first time it came under an aerial attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight civilians were killed in the attack near the mosque and a hospital. Other reports, also attributed to activists, put the death toll at 25 or more.

Yarmouk does not fit the traditional image of a refugee camp. Rather than tents, it has multistory apartment buildings, paved streets and schools. Established in 1957 as a squatter camp for Palestinians, Yarmouk lately has sheltered tens of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge from fighting in their own towns and neighborhoods.

The camp has been a stronghold of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, a radical Palestinian splinter group that has backed Assad.

Elsewhere in Syria, Islamist fighters claimed responsibility for taking an infantry base near Aleppo on Saturday. The al-Tawheed Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in Aleppo, said it had “fully liberated” a facility that has an army base, a recruitment center and a military school. The al-Tawheed commander was killed in the attack.