It is hard to see how the world and the Syrians get out of the horrible, lethal mess that the country has become over the past two-plus years.
The brightest but still dubious prospect is the effort being promoted by the United States, led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, and Russia, led by Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, to organize a conference of the Syrian parties.
Mr. Lavrov is supposed to frog-march representatives of a clearly reluctant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the table. Mr. Kerry is supposed to produce authoritative representatives of a radically divided Syrian opposition to line the other side of the table, a probably even worse job.
In the meantime, Moscow has shipped an advanced anti-ship cruise missile to Syria, outfitted with new radar that makes it extremely accurate. Now why would Russia do that?
The sale might seem at odds with an effort to peacefully end the Syrian conflict, which has claimed some 80,000 lives and driven millions of Syrians from their homes and country. But there is logic to it, looked at from Moscow and Damascus.
First of all, the Soviet Union and then Russia have supplied Syria with arms for many years. It used to be that the Soviet Union armed its surrogate Syria and the United States armed Israel and other Middle Eastern clients. In a grisly kind of way, the then-two great powers tried out their weapons on each other through their customers -- in one of the hot parts of the so-called Cold War. The competition also resulted in big arms sales for both sides, although the trade was carried out in more dignified "political" terms. After all these years, for the United States or anyone else to imagine that Russia would cut off arms sales to the Syrian government is just silly.
Another angle is that Russia still has quite a few people in Syria, engaged in -- among other activities -- training the Syrian military and, probably in some cases, actually manning some of Syria's more sophisticated weapons. That is just one reason the U.S. military is reluctant to impose no-fly zones or take other actions in Syria that might incur an effective military response. The Russians also want to be able to evacuate their people safely from Syria, particularly their base at Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea, if the Assad regime collapses entirely and the place turns into a no-man's land.
Note, for example, that the new Russian-supplied missiles are particularly designed for offshore activities, if, for example, some nation were to have the bright idea of mounting an amphibious invasion of Syria.
The third reason for the Russians to sell missiles to Syria is to reassure the Syrians that Moscow wouldn't sell them down the river at the negotiating table in exchange for some unrelated advantage in its relationship with the United States or the West. The Assad regime, and the Alawite minority whose interests it guards closely, has never been known to trust anyone very far, including the Russians.
For those who cite the general undesirability of the Russians pouring more arms into the Syrian conflict, it is worth asking why it is wrong while Qatar, Saudi Arabia and some Western countries busily arm and support the Syrian rebels. The latest stunt of those little dears on "our" side had Abu Sakkar of the Farouk Brigade of the Free Syrian Army taking a bite out of the heart of a Syrian government soldier, then having a video of it posted. The video, of course, went viral.
Despite all this it is still the case that perhaps the only way out of the Syria mess is to get as many of the parties as possible to sit down at an internationally refereed conference -- and this would include Iran -- in hopes of getting some kind of at least partial ceasefire. "Reconstruction aid" would have to be put on the table.
It may sound horrible, but there is nothing new about the international community bribing people to stop killing each other. In Somalia, "the world" bought participants in peace conferences appropriate clothing to wear to the negotiations. It can be considered progress in such affairs just to get the parties talking.
A ceasefire would be great, but Americans should not forget that the Vietnam War went on for seven years after "peace talks" ostensibly began in Paris in 1968. Still, if Syria talks start, both sides at least would be tacitly admitting the existence of the other side and attributing some validity to its claims.
It is hard to imagine that the Assad regime, having wielded exclusive power in Syria for 43 years under Hafez al-Assad and, since 2000, under his son Bashar, would be willing to sit down with Syria's very divided opposition. On the other hand, Syrian government forces, with many of Mr. Assad's fellow Alawites providing the cannon fodder, have taken a serious licking, even if they now seem to be coming back. And there is no reason to believe that the rebels will go away, or that Syria will ever in the foreseeable future become the haven of relative calm in the Middle East that it once was.
U.S.-Russian cooperation in trying to achieve negotiations is positive in two regards. First, it just might make things a little better in Syria. Second, it could serve as a model for greater U.S.-Russian cooperation in dealing with other problems, including disarmament, trade, Iran, North Korea and global climate change.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).