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Why Russia may be wavering on its support for Bashar al-Assad

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry opened the door to the possibility that Russia might accept a Syria without Bashar Assad as president.

Asked on Ekho Moskovy radio station whether it is critical that Assad remain in power, spokeswoman Maria Zakharov said, "Absolutely not, we've never said that."

That's a big step for a country that has long insisted Assad is the person best poised to tackle the challenges Syria faces, like the stubborn and growing presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Later Tuesday, Zakharov seemed to walk back her remarks, telling another outlet, "I can confirm that Russia's position on resolving the Syrian (crisis) has not changed."

"They went forward and they took a couple steps back," said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "Sometimes these are unintended gaffes or reflections of maybe some internal conversations that don't reflect real strategy or a shift in policy. But with the Russians you've got to wonder if they were sending out a little bit of a trial balloon."

Zarate said that Zakharov's comments could help animate diplomatic efforts with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in a way that gives Russia some power in the discussions.

"It also sends a signal to Assad: We're in control, we'll determine your fate," Zarate said. "Perhaps [the Russians] are dealing with some backroom problems they want to have addressed in Damascus."

Just two weeks ago, Assad left Syria for his first trip out of the country since war broke out in 2011 to visit Putin in Moscow. Putin has in the recent past insisted that Syria can only be stabilized if Assad remains in place, while President Obama makes the opposite case, that stability is only possible if Assad is transitioned out.

For Putin, Assad is an important symbolic figure, at least in the short term because he represents order, Zarate said. But in the long run, Russia might be more open to suggestions from the Americans and the Saudis that Assad could be removed from power, as long as the government still included Assad's Alawi religious group.

But there is also a clear concern from the Russians that Syria could end up like Iraq, Libya, the Balkans or even Lebanon, Zarate said -- where the removal of a dictator ultimately led to chaos.

"It may be that part of the transition is how do you stabilize the situation while it's partitioned and don't worry so much about putting Humpty Dumpty all back together at the same time," he said.

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