“It was an opportunity lost in 2012”
The news that Russia wanted a diplomatic solution and for Assad to step down as part of a negotiated transition in 2012 is no surprise any more than its being ignored by the Western Powers, especially Britain and France. Both powers had aligned very closely back then with Qatar's policy of backing Sunni rebels.
The Guardian reported today,
'On 22 February 2012 he was sent to meet the missions of the permanent five nations (the US, Russia, UK, France and China) at UN headquarters in New York by The Elders, a group of former world leaders advocating peace and human rights that has included Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan
“The most intriguing was the meeting I had with Vitaly Churkin because I know this guy,” Ahtisaari recalled. “We don’t necessarily agree on many issues but we can talk candidly. I explained what I was doing there and he said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’“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.”
The reason was back then, far more than it is in 2015, a product of Britain and France seeking to pose as champions of Sunni democracy against dictatorship and to clinch lucrative arms deals and gas deals with Qatar. Both Qatar and Turkey had planned for Assad 'to go' when he rejected their gas pipeline plan.
A gas pipeline that linked the Persian Gulf with the Eastern Mediterranean and hence Qatari gas directly via a land route to Europe would have vastly reduced energy dependence upon Russia. It would have removed the potential threat Iran poses to the oil and gas tanker routes that go via the Straits of Hormuz too.
Russia is bound to defend Assad and shore up a consolidated state in and around Damascus and Latakia and Assad's home territory along the Eastern Mediterranean. On the geopolitical chessboard concerning energy, Russia would retain the offshore gas drilling concession granted in December 2013.
While Assad's forces were brutal in trying to crush protests and armed opposition, the Sunni opposition had by 2012 been hijacked by Sunni jihadists bankrolled by the Gulf states. But the US had planned on destabilising and overthrowing Assad long before as revealed by Wikileaks cables released in 2011.
Whether Russia could have prevailed upon Assad to step down is unclear. What is clear is neither the US nor Britain or France were interested, especially not the old colonial mandate powers whose leaders, Cameron, Sarkozy and Hollande, have regarded the Middle East as a region where they shall determine events.
Syria was becoming increasingly unstable for many reasons leading up to 2011: overpopulation, a succession of years of drought and water shortage as a consequence of climate change depleting oil reserves and high fuel prices and an ineffectual autocratic government.
However, the reason it has collapsed into anarchic chaos and bloodshed is due to regional and global power political players vying for influence and control over a crucial geopolitical east-west position between Iraq and the Gulf region and the Eastern Mediterranean. Peace is difficult as no side wants to back down.
Britain and France would not want to antagonise Qatar by engaging in any diplomacy in which the demand 'Assad must go' is not central, even if they have included the six month stay on provision. Britain has bound itself closely in mutual military and security establishment ties to Qatar.
Qatar, as late as March 2015, was trying to use its money and funneling of weapons into detaching Al Nusra from Al Qaida. Before they had been prepared to support any effective Sunni militant group in opposition to Shia militias backed by Iran. Yet Al Nusra has committed numerous atrocities against civilians in Syria.
Thousands of Syrian civilians are set to continue dying or leaving as refugees or as migrants from camps in neighbouring lands as Turkey and Lebanon travelling westwards. A large part of the blame lies with the Gulf powers and with Britain and France in failing to forcefully push for diplomacy with Russia and Iran.