At the moment the world is witnessing a new concept in warfare. The almost cease fire. Some sides have promised that they might stop fighting each other later this week provided they can carry on bombing a little bit longer. They've also agreed to let humanitarian aid in. Or at least to allow a few lorries through provided the cameras are close by to record how kind they are being.
Over recent weeks Russia has provided enough heavyweight air support to ensure that Assad's troops have the military advantage. It looks to many as if Assad is now on the verge of some kind of victory. He has said that he thinks he can take the whole country. So why is Russia even thinking of a cease fire now?
The answer to that question might just come from looking at what a military victory for Assad might look like. Assume that Assad takes Aleppo and a lot of territory around it. How does he hold that territory? It is one thing defeating an identifiable army that has a clear force on the ground that you can bomb and then attack and defeat. It is quite another thing trying to run a city when any one of its inhabitants could generate a bomb attack behind the line. Assad and his Russian bombers will have to cope with years of debilitating guerrilla warfare and the local population will have to put up with vicious intimidation, regular disappearances of its young men and the sounds of torture from the walls of any jails that remain standing. It is possible that Putin has the stomach for this. It is not entirely clear that the cost in cash, dead advisers, and reputation is particularly attractive to him. It certainly won't be if any of his advisors have any remaining memories of the Russian experience in Afghanistan. That was one of the prime reasons for the fall of the old Soviet Union.
So it is just possible that Putin has genuinely made the calculation that he has won enough and that any more comes at too high a price. He can quit whilst he is ahead, get Assad to agree a cease fire from a position of strength and escape before it is too late. Hang around trying for more and the costs just look like escalating without a clear end in sight.
Equally it is also possible that Putin is copying the tactics he has used in the Ukraine. Take a bit. Pause and talk peace. Take a bit more. Pause again. Confuse the issues as much as you can by claiming all violations are down to uncontrollable local allies whilst you up their military supplies. Then let them off the leash to take even more.
If that is what is being done then Putin is playing a very dangerous game. The US is highly unlikely to stand by and see an old rival win outright in Syria even if that victory does prove to carry enormous long term strategic costs alongside any gains for Putin. The only serious option the US has on the ground looks very ugly indeed. They could support the Saudis to send ground troops to stop the Russians. The concept of the home of democracy and the land of the free backing an Islamic extremist state called Saudi Arabia to fight a set of Islamic extremists that they once helped fund is almost beyond parody. But it is a serious probability. And a very scary one indeed. Where does the world end up if Russia backs Assad and the US backs the Saudis and neither side is prepared to allow their client to lose? The potential for that conflict spreading and worsening may well be what has brought Russia and America to their senses to make some kind of start on a cease fire however weak and feeble.
It is possible that some in the Pentagon may be hoping that they have an alternative ally in the form of Turkey. Yet Turkey has almost no interests that coincide with the US. The main interest of Turkey in the region is to prevent the establishment of an independent and successful Kurdistan. If Assad wins more territory then don't be surprised if Erdogan quietly assists him to militarily crush Syrian Kurds. Nothing could be more threatening to the existence of a united Turkish state than the emergence of a secure home for Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. That wouldn't exactly be the best way for Erdogan to secure the loyalty of Kurds living in Turkey when he has just ripped up the ceasefire with them.
Whilst the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran fight to secure their own strategic interests it has been disturbing to watch the contribution of the UK. Cameron doesn't seem to know what strategic interest he has gone to war to defend. He is the first leader I can think of in British history who has launched a war without knowing who his allies are, how those allies can win, or what British strategic interest he is defending. The argument appears to be that we must drop a few bombs because everyone else is at it and we will only get a place at the negotiating table if we do so as well. The possibility that the UK might sit this one out and wait until we can actually do something useful doesn't seem to have occurred to him or half of the Labour party in parliament.
To be clear I do not think that the UK should never go to war. Nor do I think that it can never do so in a good cause. There are plenty of occasions in which, with a great deal of regret I have fully understood why the country I live in needed to fight. The second world war is one very good example. The second Iraq war is a very bad one. And the bombing of Libya doesn't look too smart right now either. I have this crazy idea that if the UK is going to kill people in a war then it should be very clear about what it is doing and why and have a strategy that can achieve victory.
Given the right circumstances I would even favour the deployment of British ground forces in Syria. There is now only one obvious compromise that is possible on the ground. The establishment of a set of agreed safe zones each of them under the protection of a different world power and each of them agreeing not to fire on the neighbouring one. Accompanied by agreed no fly zones and agreements on freedom of passage of humanitarian aid it is just possible that the creation of a series of mini secure statelets could work. It seems the only possible way now to massively reduce the scale of the conflict and allow ordinary Syrians to get back to living some kind of worthwhile lives. If that secure zone solution happened and a genuinely powerful international force was needed to make it a reality then I would very much back UK troops being deployed.
It is just possible that this is where we are heading. It is just possible that the almost cease fire will gradually morph into a real mutual acceptance of territorial realities on the ground and an end to the fighting. It is just possible that this will lead the US and Russia to back away from a dangerous conflict that is not actually in the interests of either of them. The alternative is a very ugly continued escalation, even more deaths, even more refugees, even more chaos and even more risk. A standoff between Russia and America is not something that either side should contemplate lightly.
I therefore think it is down to all ordinary citizens in any of the countries participating in creating the situation in Syria to put pressure on our own governments to try and turn the almost cease fire into a reality whilst continuing to criticise the cynical behaviour of other governments. If Cameron really welcomes this cease fire then he could do something useful to re-enforce it. He could call off his pointless UK bombing campaign and encourage others to also de-escalate. The UK hasn't done anything useful by starting up bombing. It is just possible that we could do something useful by stopping! Set an example Cameron. Call off our bombers now