From the Things That Might Have Been file.

One of the chief diplomats involved in negotiations regarding the crisis in Syria has reported that the Russians put an offer on the table back in 2012 which would have involved Bashar al-Assad stepping down and relinquishing power. But at the time the other representatives involved in the negotiations, including the United States, figured Assad was already toast so there was no need to work with the Russians. (The Guardian)

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

We’ve debated Syria here more times than I can count and personally I think the pros and cons of Assad are still an open question. There is something of a case to be made that in dangerous, unstable areas, a strongman, be he ever so evil, can at least keep a stopper in the bottle and prevent the region from completely collapsing into chaos. That could be said for Saddam Hussein in Iraq as well, though it’s an ugly concept to contemplate. But then, Assad remained in power and the place has still melted down entirely anyway so the proposal loses a few points there.

Much more to the point, though, is the fact that this story highlights yet again just how powerful the Russians have been in this mess since the very beginning. Putin has been Assad’s only supporter with any power, pledging continued support for his “friend” all along. If it weren’t for Russia Assad probably would have been gone long ago and other possible paths to a solution have been hindered by the shadow Russia casts over the region. That situation is spiraling further downward this month as a new report emerged claiming that the Russians now have tanks at a forward air base in the country. (Yahoo News)

Russia has positioned about a half dozen tanks at an airfield at the center of a military buildup in Syria, two U.S. officials said on Monday, adding that the intentions of Moscow’s latest deployment of heavy military equipment were unclear.

Moscow has come under increased international pressure in recent days to explain its moves in Syria, where the Kremlin has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a 4-1/2-year war.

Russia’s end game remains unclear, but it should be fairly obvious by now that they have absolutely zero fear of defying the intentions of the United States and the West in general and are busy with their own agenda there. I know I’ve harped on this in the past, but the Russians are beefing up their military presence in multiple regions and are clearly preparing to project force well beyond their own borders. Just this week we’ve seen yet another report that Putin has been augmenting his air power significantly in terms of both fighter aircraft, drones and missiles. One of our own Air Force generals went so far as to call it “alarming.” (Yahoo News)

General Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told reporters he was concerned about Russia’s moves to increase the quantity and quality of its aircraft and field unmanned aircraft.

“The advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking,” Gorenc said at the annual Air Force Association conference.

Gorenc called “alarming” both Russia’s investments in modernizing its air force and in building formidable surface-to-air missile defenses.

Thus far most of this expansion seems to be focused around the Crimea region of Ukraine, with other resources being deployed closer to their northwestern border, but there seems to be little doubt that the Russian bear is renewing its aerial warfare capabilities. (Of course, this comes at a time when we’re hearing a lot of doubts about the capabilities of our newest fighter jet.)

What are the Russians up to? And what possible use does Putin see for a base of operations in Syria? It’s not like ISIS is going to love the Russians any more than they do us. I have to wonder if he thinks he can just crush the uprising against Assad through brute military force on the ground and restore the old order. That would be an unexpected development, though it doesn’t seem likely to succeed. But pardon me for saying that no matter what he’s got in mind it’s not going to be in our best interests.