* Envoy says Assads have ruled too long
* Brahimi says Syrians think 40 years is too much
* Remarks cast doubt on international peace plan
By Erika Solomon and Peter Graff
BEIRUT, Jan 9 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 al-Assad to quit.
The remarks by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi cast doubt on the
future of his peace plan, the only major diplomatic initiative
to end a war the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people.
He appears to have been pushed to take a firmer stance by a
speech Assad delivered on 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 on
"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."
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 criticised Bashar al-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."
Assad has ruled since 2000, taking over from his father
Hafez, who seized power in a 1970 coup.
Brahimi met Assad in Damascus two weeks ago and has been
convening senior U.S. and Russian officials in an effort to
narrow differences between the superpowers backing either side
in the war. The next round of those talks are due next week.
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. He was disappointed by Sunday's speech.
MORE SECTARIAN, MORE ONE-SIDED
"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.
"The time of reforms granted magnanimously from above has
passed," Brahimi said. "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".
The uprising against Assad is backed mainly by the Sunni
Muslim minority, while he is supported mainly by other members
of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and other
Assad's speech on Sunday was firmly rejected by Western
countries and the opposition, which described it as an attempt
to cling to power and thwart mediation efforts.
After three days of silence following the 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 Moscow
curbing its support for Assad, hoping that this could finally
lever him from power just as Russian withdrawal of backing for
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic heralded his 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 peace plan.
Damascus did not immediately comment on Brahimi's remarks.
But in social media, where in the past it was the opposition
that usually expressed hostility to Brahimi, anger could now be
heard from Assad's supporters.
"Brahimi is finished in Syria, he may as well resign," said
a pro-Assad twitter user calling himself SyrianCommando.
CHANGE OF TONE
Some opposition supporters were wary of Brahimi's apparent
late 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 and said of
Brahimi's conclusion that Syrians had enough of the ruling
family: "This is a new discovery after two years? Maybe we
should worship him now."
On the ground in Syria there was no let-up in fighting,
despite four straight days of relentless rain, wind, hail and
snowfall that weather officials in neighbouring Lebanon and
Israel have called the worst winter storm for 20 years.
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 on the outskirts 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.
The extreme weather has raised concern for the 600,000
refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries, displaced
people within Syria and civilians, especially in rebel-held
areas where fuel and food are growing scarce.
Opposition activists say dozens of people have died because
of the storm in Syria. The weather claimed at least 17 lives in
Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Civilians were sheltering in caves from the rain, and using
plastic tarps to make homes among abandoned Byzantine ruins
known as the Dead Cities, said Fadi Yasin, an activist in
northwest Idlib province.
Residents in mainly rebel-held Aleppo were burning furniture
and doors to stay warm, said Michal Przedalicki, an aid worker
from Czech charity People in Need working in northern Syria.
"Unfortunately, I think it is quite likely that people will
die from the severe weather conditions. Already people have not
been eating enough for several months, and that exposes their
bodies to more disease and infection."
In Damascus, rebels freed 48 Iranian captives they had been
holding since August in return for the government releasing more
than 2,000 prisoners. The Iranians arrived at a hotel in central