Vladimir Putin (who is alive and well!) met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan yesterday and reportedly signaled that Russia may be willing to push for a new plan to peacefully remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. If the rumors turn out to true it would be a major shift in the diplomatic stance of Russia, which has long argued that other nations should not be interfering in Syrian politics and has helped blocked several U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have taken actions against Assad's regime. (Though we have been down this road before.)
The hard part, of course, is getting either side to agree to it. The Russian plan would allegedly involve Assad handing power to his vice-president Farouq al-Sharaa, a result that most of the Syrian opposition finds unacceptable. They sense that Assad's entire regime will soon be toppled—and the fact that such a deal would even be discussed suggests that Russia senses it too. If they've come this far, rebel commanders likely feel there's no reason to share power with a government that will soon collapse anyway, and be even more heavily indebted to the Russians.
As for Assad, he seems resigned to the fact that one way or another he will die in Syria. He's said as much publicly and a Russian source tells The New York Times that diplomats from Moscow who met with Assad recently described him as "a man who has lost all hope of victory or escape." If he tried to flee into exile, he might even be killed by his own people. That makes him more dangerous than ever, which explains the sudden urgency by the United States to ensure he doesn't decide to unleash his chemical weapons.
There's a growing sense that the regime is doomed, and no one wants to save it with a flimsy power-sharing deal or one that fails the punish the perpetrators of a two-year long atrocity. The one hope is the mere talk of a Russian defection would be enough to convince Assad he has no more friends in the international community and that further fighting would be pointless. NATO will also reportedly agree today to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey, tightening the noose even further. The end may becoming, but it could still get much uglier before it does.