Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov said July 20 that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is ready to step down, noting that it would be difficult for the president to stay in power after all that has happened in his country.
Stratfor has expected Russia to change its stance on Syria as the country's situation approaches its endgame. Moscow has now become the driver in the international diplomacy surrounding Syria, and with the regime falling apart Russia is now repositioning itself to manage the transition process. Indeed, by offering up the idea of al Assad stepping down, Russia is letting France and the rest of the West know that it is ready to work on formulating a transition.
A longtime ally of Syria, Russia is ideally suited to help manage the transition. Russia has more intelligence and security links in Syria than any other state, including Iran, and it could use those links to shape post-al Assad Syria. The United States and Europe are fearful of a complete regime collapse and do not want to see what happened in Iraq and Libya happen in Syria. Aware of that anxiety, Moscow is offering an alternative in an attempt to make itself indispensible to the West.
Negotiations over the fate of al Assad will be a key first step in the transition process. If the negotiations are not already under way, they will be starting soon. Russia does not want an exit that ends with al Assad being tried at The Hague for war crimes, lest Moscow reveal that it cannot protect its allies. Washington probably will push for a trial, but the Europeans will not.
Iran, al Assad's other key ally, has much less of an incentive for an orderly and organized transition, especially as its own geopolitical ambitions in the region have suffered a critical setback. So far, Iran has remained quiet. Tehran has fewer levers in Syria and due to its sectarian support for the Alawites, it has a much narrower field of potential alternative partners. Iran may instead seek to encourage exactly what the United States, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia do not want: chaos.