Russia denies 'offer' to replace Assad

Russia denies 'offer' to replace Assad
Russia's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied on Wednesday that Moscow approached the West with a plan for an 'elegant' exit for its Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad in 2012.
5 min read
16 September, 2015
Assad gave Russian media a rare interview following Russian pledges to continue supporting him [AFP]

The Kremlin denied a claim by a senior negotiator Wednesday that Russia had offered in 2012 to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down in an "elegant way", saying it never called for regime change.

"I can only once more repeat that Russia is not involved in changing regimes. Suggesting that someone step aside - elegantly or not - is something Russia has never done," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, quoted by TASS state news agency.

Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari told British daily The Guardian in comments confirmed to AFP that Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, met with him privately in 2012 and suggested finding "an elegant way for Assad to step aside".

"He said three things: One - we should not give arms to the opposition. Two - we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three - we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside," Ahtisaari told the newspaper.

Peskov dismissed the claim, saying that "it's very easy to trace chronologically that from the start of the Syrian crisis, Russia repeated at many different levels that only the Syrian people can determine its future, only through democratic elections."

A representative from Ahtisaari's Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a conflict resolution consultancy in Helsinki, confirmed to AFP that the ex-president had spoken to Churkin about Syria and that the Russian diplomat had detailed his three-point plan.

'Ignored offer'

Ahtisaari, awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve conflicts, told The Guardian he believed Western powers ignored the proposal as they thought Assad was about to fall anyway.

He said he forwarded the proposal to the United States, Britain and France but that "nothing happened because I think all these, and many others, were convinced that Assad would be thrown out of office in a few weeks so there was no need to do anything."

Russia has always publicly supported Assad's beleaguered regime, and had said that his removal could not be a prerequisite for any deal to end the conflict, which has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.

John Jenkins, who became Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2012, told the newspaper that "I never saw a reference to any possible flexing" in Putin's support for Assad.

"I think it is true that the general feeling was Assad wouldn't be able to hold out," he said. "But I don't see why that should have led to a decision to ignore an offer by the Russians.

"The weakest point is Ahtisaari's claim that Churkin was speaking with Moscow's authority," he added, saying he would have "wanted to hear it from (Russia President Vladimir) Putin".

"Even then I'd have wanted to be sure it wasn't a Putin trick."

Putin on Tuesday pledged to continue military support for Assad after Washington sounded the alarm over an alleged military build-up by Moscow in the war-torn country.

Moscow has been pushing for a broader coalition of forces to take on IS, but key regional players such as Saudi Arabia have ruled out fighting alongside Assad. 

Assad interview

In an interview with Russian news organizations published on Wednesday morning, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed Europe's refugee crisis on Western support for "terrorists."

Assad said Europe should expect more refugees.

Europe is struggling to deal with unusually large numbers of migrants arriving at its borders, many of them fleeing the years-long conflict in Syria that has killed more than 220,000 people.

"If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists," he said in an interview with the Russian news organizations. "That's what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees."

Countries including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia want to see Assad step down and have supported the opposition to his rule during the four-year-old war, including some of the armed groups fighting him.

"If you are worried about them [refugees], stop supporting terrorists"
- Bashar al-Assad

Assad claimed Turkish support had been crucial to the growth of two of the biggest insurgent groups in Syria, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, stressing aerial bombing by a U.S.-led coalition had failed to stop ISIS.

Turkey denies the accusations.

Assad dismissed suggestions that his government's actions in the war had fueled the spread of such groups.

Damascus describes all the armed groups fighting it as terrorists. The insurgents in Syria range from the hardline IS to nationalists viewed as moderate by the West.

Assad has been buoyed in recent weeks by signs of increased military support from his ally Russia. But in his comments he made no mention of reports of Russian military activity in Syria.

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Assad said there was no coordination between his government and the United States, even indirectly, apparently backing away from comments earlier this year suggesting there had been some contact.

He also played down proposals for a peace initiative that Assad's ally Iran has said it presented to Syrian officials.

"There is currently no Iranian initiative, but rather there are ideas, or principles, for an Iranian initiative which are based principally on the subject of Syria's sovereignty ... and are based on fighting terrorism," Assad said.

Despite his accusations, Assad said he was willing to shake hands with any leader who would join the fight against IS, and hoped to cooperate with the West and Saudi Arabia in building a "real anti-terrorist coalition."

Assad also said he would resign if the people of Syria demanded it in "a democratic process," but not under pressure from foreign powers.