London: Russia`s ambassador to the United Nations offered in 2012 to have Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step aside, a senior negotiator told The Guardian daily in comments confirmed to AFP on Wednesday.
Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved in back-channel talks with UN Security Council members, said Vitaly Churkin, a trusted Kremlin insider, met with him privately and suggested finding "an elegant way for Assad to step aside".
"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," Ahtisaari told Britain`s Guardian daily.
A representative from Ahtisaari`s Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a conflict resolution consultancy in Helsinki, confirmed to AFP that the ex-president had spoken to Churkin about Syria and that the Russian diplomat had detailed his three-point plan.
Ahtisaari, awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve conflicts, told the Guardian he believed Western powers ignored the proposal as they thought Assad was about to fall anyway.
Russia has always maintained public support for Assad, and had said that his removal could not be a prerequisite for any deal to end the conflict, which erupted in 2011 and has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.
Ahtisaari said he forwarded the proposal to representatives from the United States, Britain and France but that "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."
Ahtisaari met the missions of the UN Security Council`s permanent five nations -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- in New York as part of his work with The Elders, a group of former world leaders advocating peace.
John Jenkins, who became Britain`s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2012, told the newspaper that "I never saw a reference to any possible flexing" in Putin`s support for Assad.
"I think it is true that the general feeling was Assad wouldn`t be able to hold out," he said. "But I don`t see why that should have led to a decision to ignore an offer by the Russians.
"The weakest point is Ahtisaari`s claim that Churkin was speaking with Moscow`s authority," he added, saying he would have "wanted to hear it from (Russia President Vladimir) Putin".
"Even then I`d have wanted to be sure it wasn`t a Putin trick."
A European diplomat based in the region at the time also cast doubt on the claim, saying: "I very much doubt the P3 (Britain, France and the US) refused or dismissed any such strategy offer at the time."
Putin on Tuesday pledged to continue military support for Assad after Washington sounded the alarm over an alleged military build-up by Moscow in the war-torn country.
Moscow has been pushing for a broader coalition of forces to take on IS, but key regional players such as Saudi Arabia have ruled out fighting alongside Assad.