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UN envoy says Assad can't be in Syrian transition

Jan. 10, 2013 10:24 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 13, 2013 8:25 P.M.)
By Emad Omar and Erika Solomon

CAIRO/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The UN peace envoy for Syria said on Wednesday that Bashar Assad could have no place in a transitional government to end civil war, the closest he has come to calling directly for the embattled president to quit.

A peace plan agreed by major powers in Geneva last year envisages an interim administration. "Surely he would not be a member of that government," UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told Reuters in an interview in Cairo.

He reiterated that the Geneva plan remained "the base for a solution in Syria", ravaged by a war the United Nations says has already killed 60,000 people.

"There is no military solution," he said. "The solution shouldn't wait until 2014. It should be in 2013."

He described a speech by Assad this week as "uncompromising", saying he had "narrowed his initiative by excluding some parties" from his own peace proposals.

Assad's speech offered no concessions and included a vow never to talk to foes he branded terrorists and Western puppets.

Brahimi urged all parties to compromise for the sake of the victims of the conflict. "I say to the Syrians - be they fighters, or the president or officials - that any concession is not a loss in order that this situation ends."

Brahimi said he would travel to Geneva on Thursday for a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, whose governments back different sides in the war.

He said the opposition and Assad had to accept the Geneva plan and implement it. "Of course this requires ceasing fire," he said.

40 years 'too long'

"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 earlier interview.

His comments were welcomed by the opposition, which has long been angered by the UN 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."

A US spokeswoman said of Brahimi's remarks: "We obviously weren't surprised, based on what we've been hearing from him, that he was willing to say that in public."

Assad has ruled since 2000, taking over from his father Hafez, who seized power in a 1970 coup.

Brahimi told the BBC that Assad had told him he wanted to run for re-election in 2014. Brahimi said the crisis needed to be resolved by the end of 2013 "or there will be no Syria".

After three days of silence following Assad's speech, Moscow finally offered its support on 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 a weakening of Moscow's support for Assad, hoping this could finally prise him from power in the same way that Russian withdrawal of backing for Slobodan Milosevic heralded the Serbian leader's downfall in 2000.

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 plan.

Damascus did not immediately comment on Brahimi's remarks.

Some opposition supporters were wary of Brahimi's apparent change of tone. Col. Abdeljabbar Oqeidi, a rebel leader in northern Syria, said he had not heard Brahimi's full remarks but it sounded as if his words were positive.

"Any initiative that doesn't require the entire regime to go and be put on trial will not be enough. We won't negotiate with that criminal or his gangs," he said by telephone.

Rebel fighter Abu Faisal, reached on Skype with the sound of exploding rockets in the background, laughed after hearing that Brahimi believed Syrians had had enough of the ruling family.

"This is a new discovery after two years? Maybe we should worship him now."
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