Putin Said to Explore Sidelining Assad Even as He Arms Him

Bloomberg, By Henry Meyer & Donna Abu-Nasr, September 13

Russia is sending signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Syria’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad to be eased out of power as it seeks to forge a united front against Islamic State and retain influence in the region, officials and Syrian opposition leaders said.

Officials from the three countries, as well as from the opposition, have been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Assad since at least June, when President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, they said. Saudi Arabia is Assad’s main regional enemy, while Russia is his longtime ally. Since then, Russia’s whirlwind diplomacy has brought key officials from across the region to Moscow for talks.

Syria’s civil war has traumatized the Middle East, spilling into neighbors and enabling the rise of Islamic State amid the turmoil. The latest Russian-backed efforts to end the conflict come as its fallout spreads westwards, with hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the European Union.

Like every other aspect of the war in Syria, though, Russia’s policy isn’t straightforward. U.S. and Russian officials say they’re weighing a transition plan that would strip Assad of power while remaining interim head of state.

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