The world has been generally deadlocked over Syria. The UN Security Council cannot muster any kind of veto-proof majority for any action, nobody wants to engage in an intervention, and meanwhile the situation in the country has devolved into civil war.

So we can view this as a potential step forward, albeit with one excruciating catch:

Britain and America are willing to offer the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, safe passage – and even clemency – as part of a diplomatic push to convene a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva on political transition in Syria.

The initiative comes after David Cameron and Barack Obama received encouragement from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in separate bilateral talks at the G20 in Mexico.

A senior British official said: “Those of us who had bilaterals thought there was just enough out of those meetings to make it worth pursuing the objective of negotiating a transitional process in Syria.”

This mirrors the immunity from prosecution given to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the deal transitioning him out of power. In fact, it’s been the trajectory of the Administration’s response to the Arab uprising generally, to try to broker stage-managed transitions in quiet rooms. That has sometimes worked and sometimes not worked.

I don’t know what “encouragement from Russia” means in this context. Over the past week, Russia and the US have sparred over delivery of weapons and equipment to the Syrian government. Would Russia be involved in brokering a deal with Assad? Would they threaten a cutoff of arms shipments if he didn’t accept the deal?

Obviously, allowing Assad, who has murdered at least 10,000 of his own people in the past year or so, to receive clemency would be a gut-wrenching outcome. If it ends the carnage, it could be seen as a positive step. However, I would look at the experience in Yemen, which is still wracked with violence despite what would be described as a “successful” transition. So the worst of both worlds emerges: no accountability at the top, and a continued struggle on the ground. But nothing has been offered yet, so we’ll have to see.