CAIRO/BEIRUT The U.N. peace envoy for Syria said on Wednesday that Bashar al-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," 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."
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 U.S. 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 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."
A U.S. 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."
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, the main north-south highway, the Mediterranean coast and military bases 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, for displaced people within Syria and for 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 and under plastic sheets 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 the 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 Damascus.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Andrew Roche and Kevin Liffey)