BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrians believe that 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 leave power.
U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi 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.
Assad’s speech was firmly rejected by Western countries and the opposition, which described it as an attempt to cling to power and thwart mediation efforts.
“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 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.”
Brahimi’s remarks cast doubt about the future of his peace plan, the only major diplomatic initiative to end a war the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people.
Assad has ruled since 2000, taking over from his father Hafez who seized power in a 1970 coup. The uprising against him 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 religious minorities.
In the past, Brahimi has been careful not to take a firm position on Assad’s future role, a stance that often angered the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian leader.
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 that he wanted to launch a new initiative. The veteran Algerian diplomat said he had advised the president to make sure any announcement went further than previous failed proposals, and was disappointed by Sunday’s speech.
“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 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.”
After three days of silence over 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 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.
Opposition supporters were also 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. “We don’t have a problem with Brahimi but don’t feel his work so far reflects the desires of the rebels or the people.”
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 Assad family rule: “This is a new discovery after two years? maybe we should worship him now.”
“Nothing here will change, whatever he says. He can’t stop the fighting or the shelling. It’s clear that right now there’s no peaceful solution in Syria.” (Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Giles Elgood)