The situation in Syria is "bad and getting worse", according to a joint statement released yesterday after talks in Geneva between the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the Arab League. This much is obvious, given that the civil war has claimed the lives of 40,000 people in close to three years of fighting, and that, as the killing continues and the refugee problem escalates, no end is in sight. The conflict has become a stalemate. President Bashar al-Assad has been unable to suppress the uprising, while the rebels, who remain divided, do not have the weaponry to oust him from Damascus.
The parties assembled in Switzerland concluded that a political process to end the conflict was "still necessary and still possible". That said as much about Russia's ongoing support for the Syrian regime as any deepseated conviction. In the present situation, it is difficult to see either side opting to negotiate. President Assad has ceded vast swathes of the countryside to the rebels, concentrating his forces in the major cities. The result has been that the rebels have failed to make inroads into his hold on Damascus and have been unable to claim the centre of Aleppo.
In the past few weeks, there has, however, been a subtle hardening of attitude by the West. President Barack Obama has warned of intervention if the regime resorts to using chemical weapons. Nato foreign ministers have also decided to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey, ostensibly for the purposes of defence. Both moves suggest a greater Western involvement is not out of the question, particularly if certain trends begin to predominate.
One of these is the growing strength of Muslim fundamentalists in the opposition. In rebel-held parts of Aleppo, there have been demonstrations in favour of the Jihadi militia Jabhat al-Nusra and against the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which is accused of corruption and an inability to help a civilian population struggling with high prices, a lack of jobs and a spasmodic power supply.
This threat has been exacerbated by the manner in which efforts to establish a unified opposition have customarily descended into bickering. For the most recent talks in Turkey, which led to the establishment of a 30-member Supreme Council, no invitations were extended to Jabhat al-Nusra and another fundamentalist group, Ahrar al-Sham, even though they are playing an increasing role in the fighting.
The forces arrayed against President Assad mean he will be defeated in the end. At some point, his supporters will see the writing on the wall and join the rebels. But that process may take many months. Its imminence has certainly not been helped by the Sunni-dominated rebels' failure to promise protection to the minorities, especially the Alawites who dominate the Assad regime. The absence of such a pledge heightens the prospect of Iraqi-type sectarian violence when the rebels finally seize control.
The question for the West is whether it can afford to stand by while the potential for such developments increases. It will not want much of a post-Assad Syria to be controlled by fundamentalist forces. Its options include arming the more moderate rebel forces. A more palatable alternative would be setting up a no-fly zone along the lines of the one that tipped the balance in Libya.
As it is, the emphasis will remain on the application of diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire and a political solution, as well as efforts to reduce the humanitarian toll. That could change relatively quickly, however.
As much as the fighting is stalemated, the tide of war appears to be running against Western interests.