Putin and Assad
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin during a trip by the Syrian President to Moscow in 2015Reuters

Russia has denied sending a senior intelligence official to Damascus to request the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Financial Times quotes senior western intelligence officials claiming that Colonel-General Igor Sergun was sent to the Syrian capital at the end of 2015 to deliver a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin that it was time to step down. According to the report, Assad adamantly refused to agree to the request.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the report. "No, that is not the case," he said in a statement carried by Russian media outlets.

In September, 2015, Russia launched a military campaign in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, supporting Syrian government forces with airstrikes on rebel positions.

Igor Sergun
Intelligence chief Igor Sergun relayed the request to Assad, reports the Financial TimesGetty

For years the sticking point of a prospective Syria peace deal was the West's insistence that Assad must leave office immediately, and Russia's claim that the regime was the strongest bulwark against the growth of jihadist groups in the country.

However in recent months both parties have softened their position, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying that Assad could remain in power as part of a transitional government in Syria, and senior Moscow officials claiming that Assad would probably not be able to remain in power.

Sergun took the position of chief at the GRU military intelligence service in 2011. He was placed on a list of sanctions after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, after the GRU played a key role in organising and supporting pro-Moscow militias in east Ukraine.

He died suddenly on January 5.