BEIRUT: Syrians believe 40 years of Assad family rule is too long, the international mediator for Syria said, the closest he has come to calling directly for President Bashar Assad to quit.
He spoke as the first major prisoner swap in the 21-month conflict took place, with rebels freeing 48 Iranians in exchange for more than 2,000 regime detainees in a drawn-out deal with Damascus reportedly brokered by Turkey, Qatar and Iran.
Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi also said ahead of U.S.-Russia talks on Syria that Assad’s new plan for his country is “more sectarian, more one-sided” than previous initiatives.
Brahimi appears to have been pushed to take a firmer stance by a speech Assad delivered Sunday which was billed as a new peace proposal but offered no concessions and included a vow never to talk to foes he branded terrorists and Western puppets.
“In Syria, in particular, I think that what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long,” Brahimi told Britain’s BBC in an interview aired Wednesday.
“So the change has to be real. It has to be real, and I think that President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it.”
Assad’s plan for a “political solution” in Syria was swiftly rejected by Western countries and the opposition, which described it as an attempt to cling to power and thwart mediation efforts.
Brahimi’s comments were welcomed by the opposition, which has long been angered by the U.N. mediator’s refusal to take a firm position on excluding a future role for Assad.
“The statement of Lakhdar Brahimi has been long awaited,” the opposition National Coalition’s representative to Britain, Walid Saffour, told Reuters.
“He hasn’t criticized Bashar Assad before, but now, after he despaired of Assad after his Sunday speech, he had no other alternative than to say to the world that this rule is a family rule, and more than 40 years is enough.”
Brahimi met Assad in Damascus two weeks ago and has been convening with senior U.S. and Russian officials in a bid to narrow differences between the superpowers backing either side in the war.
The next round of talks between Brahimi and U.S. and Russian officials will be held Friday in Geneva.
“The trilateral meeting between [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister] Mikhail Bogdanov, [U.S. Undersecretary of State] William Burns, and Lakhdar Brahimi has been planned for Jan. 11 in Geneva,” Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency.
Brahimi said Assad had told him in December he would launch a new initiative. The veteran Algerian diplomat advised the president that any announcement should go further than previous failed proposals. “I’m afraid what has come out is very much a repeat of previous initiatives that obviously did not work,” Brahimi said of Assad’s proposals. “It’s not really different and perhaps is even more sectarian and more one-sided,” he added.
“People want to have a say in how they are governed and they want to take hold of their own future.”
Brahimi said there was no military solution to the conflict: “The government will not win. The opposition may win in the long term, but by the time they do, there will be no Syria, so what is the victory in that?”
He said Assad had told him he wanted to run for re-election in 2014. Although Brahimi did not comment directly on whether Assad should be allowed to stand, he said the crisis needed to be resolved by the end of 2013 “or there will be no Syria.”
After three days of silence following the speech, Moscow finally offered its support Wednesday. Assad’s proposals “affirmed the readiness for the launch of an inter-Syrian dialogue and for reforming the country on the basis of Syrian sovereignty,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Western countries have been searching for signs of Moscow curbing its support for Assad, hoping that this could finally lever him from power.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, said Assad’s new peace plan had been sent to the United Nations and was in line with Brahimi’s peace plan.
Damascus did not immediately comment on Brahimi’s remarks. But the plan is being rolled out by the government despite lacking support from the opposition.
Syrian ministers have taken on specific tasks, the state news agency SANA said. The Foreign Ministry “is responsible for making the regional and international contacts to clarify the [Assad] initiative and to garner support for it ... especially monitoring the borders,” SANA said.
In an unprecedented development, a prisoner swap involving 48 Iranian men abducted by rebels in Damascus in early August and 2,130 prisoners of Syrian and other nationalities ended Wednesday.
The Iranians, described by Tehran as “pilgrims” and by the rebels as captured Revolutionary Guard members supporting Syrian forces, looked visibly exhausted, with some weeping, an AFP correspondent reported.
A rebel spokesman and Iranian officials said the prisoner swap, arranged through mediation by Turkey and Qatar, was the biggest to occur in Syria’s conflict.
On the ground in Syria there was no let-up in fighting, despite four straight days of relentless rain, wind, hail and snowfall.
Rebels made a new push to seize a government air base in Taftanaz in the north of the country which they failed to take in a three-day offensive last week.
After six months of advances, the rebels now control swathes of the north and east of the country, as well as a crescent of suburbs of Damascus. The government still has firm control of most of the densely populated southwest near the capital, the main north-south highway, the Mediterranean coast and military bases scattered around the country from which its planes and helicopters can attack with impunity.
Fighting raged across other flashpoints in Syria hours after four children from the same family were among as many as 10 civilians killed in a predawn airstrike near the central city of Homs, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to a preliminary toll compiled by the Observatory, at least 27 people were killed across Syria Wednesday, among them 22 civilians.
The extreme weather has raised concern for the 600,000 refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, displaced people within Syria, and civilians, especially in rebel-held areas where fuel and food are growing scarce.