MOSCOW • Russia is sending signals to the United States and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Syria's embattled leader, President Bashar al-Assad, to be eased out of power as it seeks to forge a united front against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and retain influence in the region, officials and Syrian opposition leaders said.
Officials from the three countries, as well as from the Syrian opposition, have been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Mr Assad since at least June, when President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi King Salman's son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, they said. Saudi Arabia is Mr Assad's main regional enemy, while Russia is his long-time ally.
Since then, Russia's whirlwind diplomacy has brought key officials from the region to Moscow for talks.
Syria's civil war has traumatised the Middle East, spilling into neighbours and enabling the rise of ISIS 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, though, Russia's policy is not straightforward. US and Russian officials say they are weighing a transition plan that would strip Mr Assad of power while remaining interim head of state.
"There's a convergence on the threat of ISIS," said Dr Paul Salem, vice-president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "This convergence wasn't there when they last tried diplomacy two years ago."
Yet, at the same time, Russia is ramping up military aid to Syria, home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Big questions remain, a US official said on condition of anonymity, including whether Mr Putin really is prepared to see Mr Assad marginalised and, if so, whether he can persuade him to go quietly.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia is set to start flying combat missions from a new air hub inside Syria, other US officials said. Mr Putin may be betting that an increased military presence will either help Mr Assad stay in power or give Russia more sway in influencing the outcome of the crisis if the Syrian leader is forced out.
The Russian leader said last week that Mr Assad agreed to hold early parliamentary elections and invite "healthy" opposition groups into his government. Mr Putin may flesh out his plan when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly later this month, according to his spokesman, Mr Dmitry Peskov.
ISIS controls as much as half of the country, while rebel militias backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are gaining ground, leaving only about a fifth under the government's firm control, according to Major-General Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence official.
"The Russians are laying the groundwork for some kind of transition," said Mr Theodore Karasik, a UAE-based geopolitical analyst. "It's just not going to match what the US envisions."