Did the West Really Miss a Chance to End the Syrian War?
Contrary to breathless media reports, Western diplomats say Russia was never ready to dump Assad, even if its U.N. envoy floated the idea in 2012.
On a cold February day in 2012, Western diplomats at the United Nations Security Council believed they were on the cusp of a deal that could bring an end to Syria’s already devastating civil war.
In painstaking negotiations that week, Russia’s envoy, Vitaly Churkin, expressed confidence to his Western counterparts that his country would back a resolution clearing the way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s exit from power as part of a political transition.
But shortly before it came time to vote on the resolution on Feb. 4, Churkin proposed a flurry of last-minute amendments that — in the view of Western diplomats — derailed a fragile consensus. Russia and China vetoed the resolution, and the prospect of a political settlement to the war dissolved. Three years later, more than 200,000 are dead, and millions of refugees are fleeing the war-ravaged country, desperately seeking shelter in Europe and in neighboring Arab states.
The diplomatic denouement was a crushing disappointment for American and European diplomats who had tried to broker an agreement. And they came away convinced that Churkin could not necessarily speak for Moscow when it came to high-stakes issues.
That old history resurfaced Tuesday, when Finland’s former president, Martti Ahtisaari, told British newspaper the Guardian that the West had thrown away a Russian olive branch that could have ended the war. The story, which paints Russia as a spurned broker of peace, comes just as Moscow is doubling down on its military support for Assad’s embattled regime, including the construction of an airfield and the dispatch of heavy military hardware to Syria on Russian ships and planes.
Ahtisaari apparently took Churkin at his word when the veteran diplomat reportedly told him the same month that Moscow was ready to support an arrangement in which Assad would quit power once the opposition and the regime began peace talks.
According to Ahtisaari, the Russian envoy said, “We should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”
In the interview with the Guardian, Ahtisaari accused the United States, Britain, and France of ignoring the promising proposal because they were convinced at the time that Assad was on the verge of falling.
“It was an opportunity lost in 2012,” said Ahtisaari, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his decades-long dedication to peace negotiations on several continents.
Western officials acknowledged that Churkin may have floated the idea to the Finnish diplomat. But they also recounted that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top leaders in Moscow never made such an offer, including at crucial talks in Geneva four month after the episode cited by Ahtisaari.
A spokesman for Hillary Clinton, who served as U.S. secretary of state at the time, expressed skepticism about any serious offer and noted the limits of Churkin’s power within the Kremlin hierarchy.
“Frankly, there was a lot that the Russians would say, especially Churkin, that Putin would overrule,” Nick Merrill told Foreign Policy.
France’s then-representative to the U.N., Gérard Araud, dismissed the idea of a lost opportunity and noted that Churkin would be an unlikely messenger for a genuine overture.
Answering a question from FP via Twitter about a possible Russian proposal to major powers, Araud said the Russians “never” put an offer on the table for Assad’s departure.
He added: “Anyway, Churkin wouldn’t have been the channel.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington and Churkin’s spokesman in New York did not respond to requests for comment.
“In the end, what counts is how the Russians acted in the Security Council,” recalled Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, who served as Berlin’s U.N. envoy in February 2012.
“I am sure it was a decision of President Putin himself [to veto the U.N. resolution],” said Wittig.
“If Churkin ever had the thoughts Ahtisaari ascribes to him — ‘an elegant way for Assad to step aside’ — then it did not meet the litmus test in Moscow,” Wittig told FP by email.
Reza Afshar, a former British diplomat who works as the policy director at the Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit advisory group that counsels the Syrian National Coalition, doubted Churkin was really serious about such a proposal.
“Churkin was continually flying kites to keep everyone thinking that there was a discussion to be had with the Russians. But there never was,” Afshar said.
But “once you got into the detail of any of Churkin’s ‘ideas,’ he was never able to deliver Moscow,” he said.
Four months after Churkin’s alleged offer was made to Ahtisaari, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made no reference to such a deal at U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva, according to Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Damascus.
According to Ford, Lavrov’s delegation consistently hit three points: that Assad was leading a legitimate government, that outside powers should not compel him to exit, and that the Syrian dictator was fighting dangerous terrorists. Similar rhetoric underlies Moscow’s ongoing support for Assad today.
“What Churkin was talking about according to the Finnish president is very different than what Foreign Minister Lavrov was saying in Geneva” in June 2012, Ford told FP.
Ahmad Fawzi, who served as spokesman for U.N. envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi on Syria talks in 2012, said that in his experience “the Russian position was steadfast and unwavering: Assad was elected by the Syrian people, and only the Syrian people had the right to remove him.”
U.S. officials said Tuesday they had never heard of any Russian proposal on Assad’s departure, but State Department press secretary John Kirby said Moscow’s track record was clear when it came to their stance on the Syrian dictator.
“I think history speaks for itself in terms of who’s supporting Assad and who has historically — before 2012 and after 2012 — supported Assad and who’s doing it today as we speak,” Kirby said.
Ahtisaari’s account, which portrayed Russia in a flattering light as a peacemaker, surfaced just as Moscow is engaged in an unprecedented military buildup in Syria that was widely interpreted as a bid to shore up Assad’s embattled regime.
“Russia is one of the single most significant reasons for the extent and duration of the carnage in Syria and the epic global consequences,” said Afshar, the former British diplomat.
“We should never forget that.”
FP‘s John Hudson contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch