Ahtisaari detailed the discussions in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy, "said three things," according to Ahtisaari. "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, a former Finnish president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his efforts as a negotiator and settler of conflicts around the world, was adamant about the seriousness of Churkin's proposal, which he believed had the Kremlin's backing.
According to the Guardian, Ahtisaari had been sent in February 2012 to speak with the ambassadors of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council at the behest of the Elders, a group of senior statesmen and former world leaders focused on peace and the defense of human rights. The envoys from the United States, France and Britain apparently "ignored" Churkin's proposal.
"Nothing happened because I think [the Western diplomats], 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," Ahtisaari told the Guardian.
By August 2011, the White House had already demanded that Assad cede power. The glow of the Arab Spring, which had seen a succession of entrenched dictators fall in the space of a year, had probably influenced the administration's thinking on Syria.
The Russians, meanwhile, had given very little indication that they ever were willing to force through a resolution to the conflict that would entail the removal of longtime ally Assad. Just weeks before Ahtisaari had his chat with Churkin in February 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had visited Damascus and strongly backed the Assad regime's supposed overtures to the opposition.
"Efforts to stop violence have to be met with dialogue by all the political forces," Lavrov said at the time. "Today we received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria for this work."
Assad's embrace of the notion of dialogue with a limited group of opposition figures, many said, was insincere and hollow, given the ferocity with which the regime was targeting protesters and dissidents.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time, Michael McFaul, expressed dismay. "Today was a disappointing one for all those who aspire to build a new kind of relationship between the United States and Russia. Great powers have great responsibilities," he wrote on his Facebook page. "[I am] Hoping for new progress in coming hours and days before it's too late in Syria."
In June 2012, some Russian officials appeared to be suggesting that Moscow wasn't committed to Assad remaining in charge but still insisted on the regime spearheading the process of internal dialogue and reconciliation.
Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, invoked the prospect of a "Yemen scenario," referring to the process under which Yemen's long-ruling president had stepped aside as part of a negotiated transition. But Bogdanov subsequently dismissed the rumors that Assad intended to quit.
A conference in Geneva held by the United Nations in late June 2012 failed to yield any agreement over Assad's political fate. Either Russia didn’t really have any leverage over Assad or it just wanted to win more time and stave off an aggressive foreign intervention in a country that has long been in Moscow's orbit.
"I don’t believe they were really prepared for Assad to step down," Mahmoud al-Hamza, a Moscow-based member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told WorldViews on Tuesday.
On July 19, Russia and China once more vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened Syria with sanctions should it continue its punishing response to the anti-regime uprising.
"It was an opportunity lost in 2012," Ahtisaari told the Guardian, though it's unclear how real that opportunity was.
What is clear is that greater diplomatic efforts then could have saved countless lives and the tragic unraveling of an entire nation. More than 250,000 Syrians have died in the conflict since 2011, while about 12 million people — half of the country's population — have been forced from their homes.
"We should have prevented this from happening because this is a self-made disaster, this flow of refugees to our countries in Europe," Ahtisaari told the Guardian. "I don’t see any other option but to take good care of these poor people.… We are paying the bills we have caused ourselves."
And in Syria, Russia appears to have doubled down on its support of Assad, escalating its military role in the country in recent weeks with the argument that the regime is the only force that can defeat the jihadists of the Islamic State.
"We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression, are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance," Putin said in televised remarks. "Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction."
That last statement may raise the hackles of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Syrians, forced into tremendous hardship as a direct result of the war the Assad regime unleashed on its people.
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