Russia's About-face Could Mean Syria's Assad Is on His Way Out

Top Putin aide to meet with Syria's leading opposition group, signaling Assad's days are numbered.

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Members of Syria's opposition are headed to Moscow for high-level talks with Russian officials, a sign that the Bashar al-Assad era is nearing its end.

Syrian National Council leaders are slated to huddle with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials later this week, a senior opposition official tells U.S. News & World Report.

The bilateral talks will focus almost exclusively on what will happen after Assad vacates the Syrian presidency, the opposition official says.

The one-on-one meetings on Russian soil to discuss a transition away from the Assad regime, long Moscow's top Middle Eastern ally, is a major development in the yearlong Syrian civil war. It also is further evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top aides have done a 180-degree turn and now believe Assad must give up power.

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"We will be discussing the transition period after Assad's removal," says the opposition official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly before the Wednesday meeting. "I believe they are coming to the conclusion that Assad will go."

U.S. News & World Report reported in late May that Putin and his comrades, due to their relationships with Assad and his regime leaders, likely held the key to ending the bloody Syrian civil war. A former senior U.S. diplomat said at that time that Obama administration officials were quietly pressing Putin to convince his best Middle East buddy to leave office.

"The Russians are leaning very hard on Assad," the opposition official says. "Russia does not want to see any [western or regional] military intervention."

Syrian opposition officials in recent weeks have worked to assuage Russian concerns about what would happen in a post-Assad Syria.

Moscow had particular concerns about the treatment of minority groups, the opposition official says. But a "national covenant" pact signed by the various rebel groups appears to have "given comfort to the Russians," the opposition official says.

The about-face from Moscow stems from Russian fears that the fighting could spill over into other Middle Eastern nations, destabilizing the world's most volatile neighborhood.

While there are signs of a major shift in Moscow, some experts see distance remaining between the stances taken by the United States and Russia.

"Russia still believes a political solution can only be achieved through a Syrian-led dialogue between the regime and the opposition, Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institution writes in a recent white paper. "By contrast, the U.S. has given its support to...in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 'it starts from the basic premise that Assad and his regime must give way to a new democratic Syria.'"

During recent meetings in Turkey, Egypt, and Bulgaria, Syrian National Council leaders met with representatives of Syria's tribes, including minority groups like the Kurds, exiled religious leaders, and powerful business figures.

"All remain deeply suspicious of the control that Turkey and the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood have exerted on the opposition movement through the Council, which is based in Turkey," writes Shaikh. "Instead, this diverse group has seen itself as a bridge to uniting Syrians against the al-Assad regime and articulating a vision of a modern, democratic and independent Syrian state after the regime has gone."

Meantime, additional senior Syrian military leaders are preparing to flee the civil war-torn nation, says the opposition official.

Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, reportedly a close ally of Assad, defected after a spate of spats with the Syrian strongman and his top aides.

"That was a major blow to the government. Tlas helped structure Assad's army," the opposition official says. "We're expecting more defections in the next few days."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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