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FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaking during an interview with the Iran's Khabar TV, in Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)

Uncredited/The Associated Press

Now into its fifth year, the bloody civil strife in Syria has taken on a grinding, inexorable quality.

Since the summer, the geopolitical momentum has picked up. In the past couple of weeks, things have started happening very quickly indeed.

Against the backdrop of a downed Russian passenger jet in the Sinai – the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, which Egypt calls "propaganda" – the Turkish elections and a summit in Vienna that brought Iran to the table, an international consensus on halting the bloodshed may be visible in the far, shimmering distance.

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Russia is Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's main benefactor, but it is distancing itself from the regime even as it continues to support the regime militarily.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin softened its insistence that Mr. Assad remain in place if a ceasefire is brokered; it follows a parallel softening from the United States, which no longer opposes Mr. Assad having a role in an eventual transition.

Even the small, incremental step on the Kremlin's part rates as good news. So is the fact the U.S. and Russia have begun co-ordinating deployments in the skies above the region. (The Americans have also sent military advisers to Syria, despite repeated promises not to put troops on the ground.) There is talk of joint exercises, but it's still a good idea for the two major countries to stay out of each other's way.

It's also not mere happenstance that the diplomacy has intensified, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a ferocious opponent of both Mr. Assad and the IS, is consolidating his power in Syria's northern neighbour.

Iran is now Mr. Assad's last unconditional defender. There are reports the religious hardliners who control that country are not best pleased with the government's decision to go to Vienna. Still, Iran's general antipathy toward IS's putative caliphate and the recent nuclear rapprochement with the U.S. suggest that a diplomatic opening is within reach. Squeezing through it will require deft handling – both Russia and Iran are playing their own games here – but another round of talks is slated in 10 days' time.

After 250,000 civilian deaths and millions of displaced refugees, there is a tiny shred of hope.

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