Change in direction, or political cover?  Either way, the Assad regime won’t be happy to hear Vladimir Putin talk about how the impulse for change after 40 years of single-family rule is understandable. At the same time, Putin’s statement earlier today isn’t exactly a reversal of Russian policy, either:

Russia realizes changes in Syria are needed but is concerned that the push to unseat President Bashar Assad’s regime could plunge the country even deeper into violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Putin’s assessment came just a week after Russia’s top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad’s forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.

At his annual hours-long news conference, Putin said Moscow stands for a settlement that would “prevent the country from breakup and an endless civil war. “Agreements based on a military victory can’t be effective,” he said. …

“We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what’s going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years,” Putin said. “Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”

This statement got linked in the comments of the earlier post on the WaPo/ABC poll on American intervention in Syria, but I don’t read this as a dramatic shift for Putin.  It is a more direct acknowledgment that the political situation in Syria needs to change.  The US has consistently said the same thing, and the Obama administration insisted until just recently (March 2011, to be exact) that Assad was a reformer at heart who could bring about that change. Putin’s statement puts Russia at about the March 2011 US position — suggesting that Assad remain in charge of whatever change may come.

It took until August 2011 for the US to admit that Assad was the problem and not the solution.  It’s not a great surprise that Putin has taken this long to get to Hillary Clinton’s March 2011 position about his ally in Damascus, but it’s not much more significant a change than that.

The UN, meanwhile, warns today that what had been a domestic uprising is quickly turning into a global sectarian conflict:

Fighters from around the world have filtered into Syria to join a civil war that has split along sectarian lines, increasingly pitting the ruling Alawite community against the majority Sunni Muslims, U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday.

The deepened sectarian divisions in Syria may diminish prospects for any post-conflict reconciliation even if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled. And the influx of foreign fighters raises the risk of the war spilling into neighboring countries, riven by the same sectarian fault lines that cut through Syria.

“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the investigators led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said in an updated report.

As a result, they said, more civilians were seeking to arm themselves in the conflict, which began 21 months ago with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform and evolved into an armed insurgency bent on toppling Assad.

“What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a member of the group, told a news conference in Brussels.

This is exactly why Israel was not in any hurry to see Assad toppled, or if he was, toppled quickly enough for native Syrians to control the outcome.  Assad was a bad problem for Israel with his support for Iranian-backed terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah and Hamas.  This outcome could be considerably worse.