By Jill Dougherty
Last December, media reports surfaced in the Middle East that Russia had a plan to solve the Syrian conflict: have President Bashar al-Assad step aside for a transitional period and let his vice president, Farouk al-Shara, take over until elections could be held. Moscow would give al-Assad political asylum or find him a refuge.
Russian officials refused to confirm those reports but the plan got a spy-novel name - the Yemensky Variant - because of its similarity to the transition plan that led to the ouster of former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh who handed over power to his vice president, clearing the way to elections.
Now, it appears, the "Yemensky Variant" is picking up steam.
After talking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "he (Lavrov) himself has referred to the Yemen example."
With Yemen, she noted in her comments while in Stockholm on Sunday, "it took a lot of time and effort with a number of countries who were involved at the table, working to achieve a political transition. And we would like to see the same occur in Syria."
"My message to the foreign minister was very simple and straightforward," Clinton added. "We all have to intensify our efforts to achieve a political transition and Russia has to be at the table helping that to occur."
Moscow, so far, has stood by al-Assad, while at the same time insisting it wants the killing in Syria to stop. It has vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions against the regime but says it supports the same six-point peace plan of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan which includes steps toward a political transition.
The Obama administration says al-Assad must go, but Moscow says that can't be a precondition. Now, Hillary Clinton appears to be opening the door to more flexible timing, saying al-Assad's departure "does not have to be a precondition, but it should be an outcome, so the people of Syria have a chance to express themselves."
The Russians have been meeting with the Syrian opposition formally and informally, and a European diplomat says Moscow is looking for alternatives to al-Assad, should he step down or be removed from office.
American officials appear more skeptical.
"I do not see any movement or change in their position or policy that I would bet anything on," one senior official told CNN on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
Some Russia experts share that skepticism. Matthew Rojansky of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN, "I don't think they (the Russians) are going further than they have before."
Syria has long economic ties with Russia, which has supplied it with weapons. "All the invoices that are worth billions to Russia have Assad's name on them," Rojansky said, "and they want to know - if he goes, somebody's got to pick them up."
Russia, Rojansky says, might be willing to shift its position, "but only in the context of being the pivotal player in brokering a face-saving transition that also preserves Russia's economic and strategic interests."
If al-Assad's departure meant continuing the same basic regime and elite, who would presumably respect the same basic bargain with Russia that al-Assad did, Moscow might support it. But, Rojansky thinks, Moscow would never agree to Western pressure to hold elections or prosecute members of the old regime.
But could Russia actually convince al-Assad to step down? Rojansky said, "The only real leverage they have over Assad is his belief that they are his exit strategy."
Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group told CNN, "The Russians say they are not with Assad...and there's truth to that."
Moscow's support of the regime is fueled by many factors, including anger at the West, fear of Islamism, and fear of popular uprisings, he says.
"I'm not sure that the Russians really see an alternative to Assad at this point, Malley said. "They don't see the reason for an alternative for Assad because he is surviving, and as long as he's surviving any attempt to remove him could cause unintended consequences."
That said, the Russians aren't "dead set against keeping him in power," said Malley.
"I think they're dead set on preventing a chaotic transition, foreign interference, Western intervention and at some point they may conclude they're better off doing that by getting rid of Assad if they can."
It's a song, Malley said, that he's heard for some time now: "That (Moscow) might be willing to back somebody other than Assad but I think it does depend on them reaching the conclusion that Assad is a real liability. I don't think they've reached that conclusion yet and I don't think they're prepared to take the risk of tinkering with that."
"Everyone is "working on alternatives to Assad," another European diplomat told CNN, "but no one had yet come up with a viable alternative, and with every passing day the task is getting more difficult - not easier."
CNN's Tim Lister contributed to this report.