Remember this one about President Obama’s speech on Syria in 2013? Thus:

The real risk in President Obama’s new approach is this. The protracted painstaking negotiation needed to set up a credible international monitoring and destruction regime for Syria’s CW stocks will give Assad and his state apparatus a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy. Before long Washington may find itself locked on to implicitly or even explicitly supporting Assad in his civil war as the best chance to get some sort of internationally agreed CW destruction programme delivered in Syria.

That won’t be a victory for restrained US diplomacy. It will be a dramatic success for Vladimir Putin and his strident anti-Western noises. The human and political cost in Syria and beyond of Assad staying in power will grow and grow. No speech, however subtle and well-crafted, will hide that disaster …

And this:

The truly ghastly aspect of the Syrian crisis is the possibility that the cynical immoral Russian position may turn out to be the best one available. What if the Assad regime is the best we can get in Syria without the whole country disintegrating?

Underlying the dismal Western policy uncertainty on Syria that we have seen in recent days is that lurking worry, or at least the thought that blowing up Assad assets may well make things worse rather than better. And that ‘better’ in Syria now may be neither identifiable or obtainable.

Nearly four years on, what has changed?

Obama has gone. President Trump has used limited force to respond to a new CW outrage in Syria.

Assad has not gone. Russia is still blocking UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.What looks like the text of this latest draft resolution is here.

The incalculable misery for the Syrian people drags on. The new US Secretary of State did not get far in Moscow yesterday. Well done the State Department for producing a full transcript of the Tillerson/Lavrov press conference so fast.

Some issues in this imbroglio.

Has the UN failed again?

No. The fact that Russia has vetoed another Syria resolution shows the UN working exactly as it was designed.

Five Big Powers each have a veto on creating new legally binding action through Security Council resolutions. The point of the veto power is that it encourages the Big Powers to reach deals they can all accept: better something than nothing.

What does Russia want?

Russia’s reasons for using the veto again this time may or may not be specious. Moscow doesn’t care. It’s using its power here to demonstrate once again that any Syria diplomatic process takes place on Russia’s terms or not at all.

The deeper point here is that Russia is showing strength as an end in itself, as part of a wider goal to recalibrate global order against any obviously ‘Western’ positions. The veto here looks like a calculated snub to the US air-strike: “You have no diplomatic avenue unless we agree – do you dare escalate military action?” 

On the other hand, US Defence Secretary Mattis is impressively smart and tough. So Moscow/Assad will themselves think very carefully about the risks of any new CW attacks in Syria. Moscow is now pushing back on all fronts to make up for what it sees as years of ‘humiliation’. Washington too (and especially under President Trump) does not take kindly to being embarrassed and ‘humiliated’.

Therefore what next?

Good question.

The intense diplomatic manoeuvres yesterday boil down to issues that are simple enough to express, but horribly difficult to tackle:

Is any more or less stable outcome for Syria now identifiable as a plausible goal, given the mess the country is in and the swirling factions on the ground?

If some sort of outcome IS identifiable, how in practice to move usefully in that direction? Who sits at the table? How to stop those excluded from the table creating disruptive new realities ‘on the ground’? What level of military and other commitment might be needed in Syria to reinforce a peace process that works?

Does Assad have to go for any outcome to be credible? Is there a way that Assad in person goes, now or later, symbolically or otherwise, but Assadism remains in business as part of the new deal?

Where does Syria fit with other grave Middle East issues? Does progress with Syria open the way to progress elsewhere?

And what about Ukraine, North Korea and other hot-spots? Is Russia going to block concerted international action there too?

Insofar as there is any positive news in this confusion, it is that there are hints that Washington and Moscow are going to work privately at rebuilding some pragmatic operational trust. Secretary Tillerson yesterday in Moscow:

… in some areas we share a common view. Specifically, we both believe in a unified and stable Syria, and we agree we want to deny a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack both of our countries. We agree that North Korea has to be de-nuclearized. We agreed there needs to be more senior-level communication between our two countries, both at a diplomatic and military level.

But there is a broad range of other issues in which we have differences. Some have global implications with long-term requirements, and others are understood to be bilateral.

Over the course of the past two years, a number of reciprocal actions have been taken to demonstrate the dissatisfaction each country has with the other. We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us.

We have agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship, so that we can then address the more serious problems. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed we would consider further proposals made about the way forward in Syria, including consulting with our allies and coalition members. And we will continue discussions about how to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.

Diplomacy. Sometimes you feel that you must emphasise your differences. But sooner or later you realise that that’s going nowhere, so you start once again exploring what you have in common.

Meanwhile, out there in real life, Syria’s horror drags on.