Report: Obama ignored Russian offer to have Assad step down

More than three years ago, Russia proposed that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down as part of a peace deal, according to Martti Ahtisaari, a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time. Ahtisaari is the former president of Finland and a Nobel peace prize laureate.

He says the Russian offer, which sounds more like a framework, came in 2012 from Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. It consisted of three parts:

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.

Ahrisaari says he conveyed this plan to the American, British and French missions at the U.N. However “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.”

The Assad regime survived, of course, and up to 200,000 Syrians reportedly have died since the Russians made their “offer.” In addition, ISIS has risen in Syria.

What to make of this story? First, it wasn’t unreasonable for Obama to believe in 2012 that Assad was on his way out. The Russians would not have discussed a plan that involved Assad’s removal unless they believed his demise was inevitable. And the Russians, who had worked assiduously to keep Assad in power, were well-positioned to assess his prospects for survival.

As Obama misjudgments go, therefore, this one was hardly egregious. It pales in comparison with, for example, his assessment that ISIS was “the jayvee”; that the Muslim Brotherhood was the benign wave of the future in Egypt; that Yemen was an anti-terrorism success story; and, probably worst of all, that Iran is likely to evolve into a constructive U.S. partner in the Middle East if we accommodate the mullahs.

But second, the reasonableness of thinking that Assad was on his way out doesn’t necessarily excuse Obama’s unwillingness to work with the Russians. As the Iraqi and Libyan experience had already made clear, the demise of a dictator in this region is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Working with the Russians has obvious drawbacks, but what was Obama’s alternative? Did he have a plan for what to do after Assad fell? If so, what was it? If not, he should at least have discussed the matter with Russia.

Third, there’s the question of whether Ahtisaaria’s report is accurate and meaningful. I can think of no reason to doubt his claim that Chrukin conveyed the “offer” Ahtisaaria describes. But did this represent a genuine willingness on the part of Putin to cooperate in the toppling of Assad’s regime? Or was it, perhaps, a way to buy time or to keep the regime in power under a new strong man?

These are legitimate questions. But it’s also legitimate, in light of Ahtisaaria’s report, to expect the Obama administration to confirm or deny the story and to explain, if the story is true, why it didn’t respond to the Russian proposal.

Hillary Clinton was still Secretary of State at the time of the Russian “offer.” As much as she dislikes answering questioning, I think it’s incumbent on her, as a candidate for the presidency, to respond to this story.

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