Start with Assad. Since the whole problem did that seems like a reasonable place. He maintained a vicious secret police that tortured and murdered so many of his opponents that he eventually provoked a genuinely popular mass movement of desperate Syrians prepared to risk everything to get rid of him. Faced with the choice of granting them free and fair elections or sending in the army he chose the army, the tanks, the air force, chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
Faced with a man who is prepared to do this a twitter storm isn't much of a weapon. The opposition idealists quickly learned that you need serious weapons including heavy artillery. But instead of their fight being for freedom and equality it quickly turned into a fight to impose a dangerously radical form of Islam. Why? How did ISIS emerge as the best equipped and organised fighting force?
The horrible answer is that the UK's main allies in the area were prepared to provide funding and weapons for radical Islamic forces but not to anyone who held dangerous beliefs like democracy or freedom of religious belief. Saudi Arabia wanted their own particular extreme form of Sunni believers to win out in Syria. They have been quietly determined to ensure enough weapons reach Sunni forces to rule out any danger of a Shiite Syria.
The weapons got there via Turkey. Turkey has turned a blind eye to the transport of weapons over its border. Aside from any religious motivations the reason here is one of nationalism. As soon as Kurdish forces started to create an independent area inside Syria it looked very worrying to nationalists in Turkey. There are too many Kurdish people within the Turkish state who might well prefer to link up with Kurds just across the border and create Kurdistan. The right wing religious Turkish government would pay any price to avoid that. Especially if the price was paid by Syrian civilians or Kurdish minorities and not by Turks. So they let the arms for ISIS through and tried to block arms for Kurds.
ISIS has become powerful because of money from Saudi Arabia and weapons coming via Turkey. Therefore any peace deal which strengthens the Kurds or represents an outright defeat for Sunni forces in Syria is almost certain to be blocked by these two powers. They would rather more Syrians died than that outcome materialised.
Unfortunately for Syria that is exactly the opposite of what Russia and Iran want. For Iran the motivation is simple. They want Shiite inclined Syrians to win. They have been prepared to send Assad arms and men to achieve this. Putin doesn't share the religious obsession and may not have the same immovable determination but he does think that Assad has been a key ally. If popular uprisings can overthrow a nationalist authoritarian ruler then Putin has every reason to want to make sure that his client stays firmly in power in Syria and no one back home gets any ideas.
So we have a horrible stand-off. Russia and Iran are determined to supply enough armed force to make sure Assad wins. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are determined to supply enough arms to make sure his opponents do. Millions of Syrians will die and become homeless and these two apparently immovable forces will battle it out at their expense.
In these circumstances what should be the approach of the West? The options are as follows:
1. Supply enough military force in great enough quantities for long enough to ensure that forces that meet with Western approval win. Kurds & more reasonable opposition groups for instance. We are, however, not geographically close enough and we don't have a strong enough capacity in conventional weapons in the locality to be able to enforce our solution against the wishes of Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Russia and Iran. It is extremely unlikely that we could win and even more unlikely that it would be welcome on the ground to everyone if we did. We know from Afghanistan and Iraq what it feels like to win the key battles and find you can't enforce the peace. So this is a bad idea.
2. Drop some bombs and missiles on forces that are doing things we don't like in the confused hope that it might somehow magic up a solution. Like Cameron. One year he asks Parliament to bomb Assad's forces who are fighting ISIS. The next year he doesn't bother to ask but goes straight ahead and drops bombs in an ISIS area, thus helping Assad. This kind of dithering intervention is completely incapable of achieving anything meaningful. It might just possibly succeed in weakening some highly unpleasant war lords including ISIS for a short while in some areas. It is difficult to see how it could result in a secure victory for anyone the average British, EU or US citizen might actually wish to support.
3. Try to force the main antagonists to engage in a serious UN peace initiative and to get an agreement that will allow everyone to walk away with something. Then assemble a strong enough UN army to enforce it on the ground. This is extraordinarily hard to do but not impossible. Several of the genuinely Syrian commanders are actually trying very hard to arrange cease fires in particular localities and to reduce the conflict by accepting realities on the ground. Using this to create a network of points of stability might be a way forward. Localising power so that we start building the peace area by area might allow every power emerge claiming victory. It might enable us to start constructing some sort of liveable life on the ground and provide a basis for a more constructive route forward. Sooner or later an unpleasant messy real-politic solution of some kind is going to need to be created. Sooner is a lot better for Syria than later.
The one person who might have the moral authority and the clear self interest to organise a serious peace conference is Angela Merkel. She is not my favourite politician because of what she has done to Greece. But she is one of the few people to emerge from the Syrian conflict so far with relatively clean hands and an internationally recognised interest in that over half a million Syrians are now residing in her country. She also has the best chance of striking a deal with Putin as she is one of the few leaders who demonstrates the smallest awareness of what are his vital interests and what he would be prepared to give up.
The wise policy for the UK is therefore a simple one. Don't waste money, lives and credibility on a half hearted bombing campaign that annoys all the major players without achieving victory. Instead team up with Merkel to try and force those who are stoking the fires of this war to start working on putting them out.
Wouldn't it be great if Cameron could show the leadership required to get started on that instead of trying to sound tough by preaching the importance of dropping bombs without quite knowing what he wants to achieve or how those bombs are going to help to achieve it.