The U.N. peace envoy for Syria said on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will certainly not be part of the country’s transitional government, 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,” U.N. 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.”
U.N. and Arab League envoy Brahimi was giving his first public reaction to a three-step plan announced by Assad on Sunday.
“What has been said this time is not really different and it is perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided,” he told the BBC.
“What you need is reaching out and recognizing that there is a... very serious problem between Syrians, and that Syrians have got to talk to one another to solve it,” Brahimi said.
“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 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 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.”
Brahimi 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.
The Iranians, described by Tehran as “pilgrims” and by the rebels as captured Revolutionary Guards members supporting Syrian forces, looked visibly exhausted, with some weeping, an AFP correspondent reported.
A rebel spokesman and Iranian officials said the prisoner swap was the biggest to occur in Syria’s conflict.
Iran’s foreign ministry praised the efforts “by our friend and brother Syria and the assistance of Qatar and Turkey in freeing the pilgrims.”
Washington disputed the hostages’ description as “pilgrims,” however, alleging they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was “another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, and technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”