An excerpt from, "Vladimir Putin asked Bashar al-Assad to step down" by Sam Jones, Erika Solomon and Kathrin Hille, FT, January 22, 2016:
An excerpt from, "14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit" by Max Fisher, Vox, February 10, 2016:Just weeks before his death on January 3, Colonel-General Igor Sergun, director of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, was sent to Damascus on a delicate mission.The general, who is believed to have cut his teeth as a Soviet operative in Syria, bore a message from Vladimir Putin for President Bashar al-Assad: the Kremlin, the Syrian dictator’s most powerful international protector, believed it was time for him to step aside.Mr Assad angrily refused.
Two senior western intelligence officials have given the Financial Times details of Sergun’s mission. The Russian foreign ministry referred a request for comment to the defence ministry, which said it was unable to comment.
But on Friday, in response to a question from a journalist, asking if the Russian leader had asked Mr Assad to step down, a spokesman for Mr Putin said: “No, that’s not so.”
Russia’s failed gamble in Damascus left Mr Assad more entrenched than before, and hopes for a diplomatic solution to the vicious civil war appear again to be ebbing away.
Putin has little control over Assad, whom he reportedly tried in December to push out; the Syrian leader has been playing Russia and Iran off one another for months. The frequent demand that America "stand up to Putin," however it is defined, is not a path to a solution for Syria's war, but it is a very appealing political statement, so expect to hear it many times over the next year.