For the first time in the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime seems to be in a mood to bargain with the possible exit of the dictator in the offing.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dispatched a senior diplomat to Moscow on Wednesday to discuss proposals made by envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to end the conflict convulsing his country, Syrian and Lebanese sources said.
Brahimi, who met Assad on Monday as part of a series of planned talks with Syrian officials and dissidents in Damascus this week, is trying to arrange a peaceful transfer of power, but has disclosed little about how this might be achieved.
More than 44,000 Syrians have died in the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, a conflict that began with peaceful protests but which has descended into civil war.
Past peace efforts have floundered, with world powers divided over what has become an increasingly sectarian struggle between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and Assad's security forces, drawn primarily from his Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad flew to Moscow to discuss the details of the talks with Brahimi, said a Syrian security source, who would not say if a deal was in the works.
However, a Lebanese official close to Damascus said Makdad had been sent to seek Russian advice on a possible agreement.
He said Syrian officials were upbeat after talks with Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, who met Foreign Minister Walid Moualem on Tuesday a day after his session with Assad, but who has not outlined his ideas in public.
"There is a new mood now and something good is happening," the official said, asking not to be named. He gave no details.
Russia, which has given Assad diplomatic and military aid in the 21-month-old uprising, has said it is not protecting him, but has fiercely criticized any foreign backing for rebels and, with China, has blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria.
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria's civil war had reached stalemate and international efforts to persuade Assad to quit would fail.
Assad's opponents insist the Syrian president must go, given the scale of bloodshed and destruction they blame on him.
What makes this effort different is that the Syrians themselves seem to be pushing it with their ally Russia. Moscow has been Assad's ultimate guarantor and if a way can be found to finagle Assad's departure while keeping Russia's interests in mind, Putin may sign off on it.
But would it satisfy the rebels? No doubt any negotiated transistion would see Assad depart while leaving some of the regime in place - if only to avoid total chaos. And a promise of free elections in the near future could soften the rebels' demands. In effect, such a negotiated solution would keep Russia as a player in Syria, give the rebels what they want in the departure of Assad with elections to determine a new government, and Assad and presumably most of his Alawite followers safe passage out of Syria.
It's still a very long shot but at the very least, it's a start.