* Syrian VP most prominent figure to say Assad cannot win
* French foreign minister says end is near for Assad
* Rebels announce offensive in Hama province
* Intra-Palestinian fighting in Damascus
By Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, Dec 17 Syrian Vice President Farouq
al-Sharaa said that neither the forces of President Bashar
al-Assad nor rebels seeking to overthrow him can win the war
which is now being fought on the outskirts of Assad's powerbase
Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by
Assad's Alawite minority, has rarely been seen since the Syrian
revolt erupted in March 2011 and is not part of the president's
inner circle directing the fight against Sunni rebels.
But he is the most prominent figure to say in public that
Assad will not win. He was speaking to Lebanon's al-Akhbar paper
in an interview from Damascus, which is now hemmed in by rebel
fighters to the south.
Assad's forces have used jets and artillery to try to
dislodge the fighters from around Damascus but the violence has
crept into the heart of the capital and activists said rebels
overran three army stations in a new offensive in the central
province of Hama on Monday.
Sharaa said the situation in Syria, where more than 40,000
people have been killed, was deteriorating and a "historic
settlement" was needed to end the conflict, involving regional
powers and the U.N. Security Council and the formation of a
national unity government "with broad powers".
"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," Sharaa was quoted as saying.
"The opposition cannot decisively settle the battle and what
the security forces and army units are doing will not achieve a
decisive settlement," he told the paper, adding that the
insurgents fighting to topple Syria's leadership could plunge it
into "anarchy and an unending spiral of violence".
Sources close to the Syrian government say Sharaa had pushed
for dialogue with the opposition and objected to the military
response to an uprising that began peacefully.
In Damascus, clashes raged between Palestinian factions
loyal to and opposed to Assad in the Yarmouk district a day
after Syrian fighter jets bombed a mosque there, killing at
least 25 people.
Activists said troops and tanks were gathered outside the
camp on Monday and hundreds of Palestinians refugees living in
Syria flooded into Lebanon.
Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, most living
in Yarmouk and descendants of those admitted after the creation
of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of
the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.
Both Assad's government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian
rebels have enlisted and armed divided Palestinian factions as
the uprising has developed into a civil war.
In a veiled criticism of the crackdown, Sharaa said there
was a difference between the state's duty to provide security to
its citizens, and "pursuing a security solution to the crisis".
He said even Assad could not be certain where events in
Syria were leading, but that anyone who met him would hear that
"this is a long struggle...and he does not hide his desire to
settle matters militarily to reach a final solution."
"We realise today that change is inevitable," Sharaa said,
but "none of the peaceful or armed opposition groups with their
known foreign links can call themselves the sole legitimate
representative of the Syrian people".
"Likewise the current leadership...cannot achieve change
alone after two years of crisis without new partners who
contribute to preserving (Syria's) national fabric, territorial
unity and regional sovereignty".
Rebels have now brought the war to the capital, without yet
delivering a fatal blow to the government. But nor has Assad
found the military muscle to oust his opponents from the city.
In Hama province, rebels and the army clashed in a new
campaign launched on Sunday by rebels to block off the country's
north, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an
opposition-linked violence monitor, said fighting raged through
the provincial towns of Karnaz, Kafar Weeta, Halfayeh and
"There is not fighting in these areas often," said Rami
Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, adding that rebels units
from Idlib joined the offensive and three army stations had been
He said there were no clashes reported in Hama city, which
lies on the main north-south highway connecting the capital with
Aleppo, Syria's second city.
Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the newly established rebel
military command, told Reuters on Sunday fighters had been
ordered to surround and attack army positions across the
province. He said forces loyal to Assad had been given 48 hours
to surrender or be killed.
"When we liberate the countryside of Hama province ... then
we will have the area between Aleppo and Hama liberated and open
for us," he said.
In 1982 Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, crushed
an uprising in Hama city, killing up to 30,000 civilians.
Qatiba al-Naasan, a rebel from Hama, said the offensive
would bring retaliatory air strikes from the government but that
the situation is "already getting miserable".
"For sure there will be slaughter - if the army wants to
shell us many people will die. There are many populated areas
and many refugees have fled here."
"(But) we felt it was always inevitable Hama would be
shelled and we at least want to be fighting to liberate it," he
said from Hama through Skype.
He said rebels would attack areas of strategic significance
but not maintain a presence in other areas to allow civilians a
safe place to flee.