Syria government says its forces still strong

BEIRUT Sun Dec 23, 2012 8:34pm IST

A Free Syrian Army fighter poses near buildings, damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at Zamalka near Damascus December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Karm Seif/Shaam News Network/Handout

A Free Syrian Army fighter poses near buildings, damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at Zamalka near Damascus December 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Karm Seif/Shaam News Network/Handout

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's information minister on Sunday distanced the government from comments by the country's vice president that neither the rebels nor the forces of President Bashar al-Assad could win the civil war.

Last week Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said in a newspaper interview that the country needed a government of national unity since neither side could win militarily.

"There are 23 million people in Syria with their own personal opinions, this was one of those 23 million," the information minister, Umran Ahid al-Za'bi, told a news conference in the Syrian capital Damascus.

Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by Assad's Alawite minority, has rarely been seen since the revolt began in March 2011 and is not part of the president's inner circle.

Za'bi told journalists that the Syrian army was still strong, despite a string of rebel advances and seizures of military sites across the country. He said that many reports of rebel gains were "fantasy, media victories".

"I have general advice to those political powers that reject dialogue: Time is getting short. Hurry and move on to working on a political solution," he said.

"These military efforts to try to topple the government, of getting rid of the president, of occupying the capital ... forget about this. That is my advice."

The minister also said Syria would never use chemical weapons, if it had them, anywhere inside or outside the country. It was the first time a government minister clearly stated that there were no intentions of using chemical arms in any capacity.

The United States and other Western countries cited intelligence reports earlier this month suggesting that chemical weapons were being prepared or moved, and warned Assad their use was a "red line" that would have international repercussions.

More recently, Washington and NATO have begun to report the use of Scud-type, long-range missiles in Syria. Za'bi did not directly deny the use of such weapons, but said that reports of scuds and chemical weapons were a propaganda campaign against Assad's government.

When asked about rebel advances in the north, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory, Za'bi mocked the idea of rebel control there.

"They are incapable of staying there and they cannot control the ground," he said. "All this talk is untrue.. If they attack a checkpoint they cannot stay longer than 15 minutes."

While rebels have seized many residential areas and military sites, they have little defence against Assad's air power and long-range missiles. Air strikes regularly hit neighbourhoods and military sites seized by the rebels.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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