By Elise Labott
When the Friends of Syria group began meeting this year, first in Tunis and again in Istanbul, there was a sense of possibility. Perhaps the group would endorse military action against Syria. Maybe they would recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate opposition group.
Six months in, the allure has worn off. At their third meeting in Paris, there were no expectations any decisions would be made, except for who would host the next meeting.
Calls were made for tougher sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, even though most countries which had any business with Syria have already imposed tough measures to no avail.
The group did endorse a transition plan hatched last week in Geneva. The document endorses a Syrian-led transition as part of the peace plan designed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The fact that the plan, which provides for an interim government, has no relation to the current reality on the ground or that it had no input from either the Syrian regime or the opposition - the two parties which would have to implement it - didn't seem to be nearly as important as the fact that Russia and China went along with it.
In lieu of an agenda, there was plenty of blame in Paris to heap on Russia and China. Offering her harshest rebuke of Moscow and Beijing to date, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on each leader present at the meeting to demand that Russia and China "get off the sidelines."
"I don't believe Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," Clinton said.
The longer the conflict drags on, the tougher Clinton's rhetoric on Russia becomes.
By placing the blame squarely on Russia and China, Clinton and others are able to delude themselves that diplomatic efforts can end the conflict with the main goal of getting Assad out. But in their heart of hearts they know even the most detailed roadmap of a post-Assad Syria has no hope of changing the military balance on the ground enough so that the Syrian military, Assad's inner circle, and Moscow see Assad as a sinking ship and abandon him.
Diplomats in New York are already at work on a new U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the Annan plan and imposing sanctions on the regime if it fails to implement it. The resolution would be under Chapter 7, which has the implied threat of military action.
But this, too, is a mirage. Privately, U.S. and other western officials recognize they are spinning their wheels. They know there is no chance the Assad regime would implement the Annan plan without a credible military threat and they also know that the appetite for international military action is, well, nonexistent.
Since the conflict in Syria began, the international community has had many excuses for inaction: the lack of a credible opposition, Russian intransigence and the fear of further militarizing the conflict. The need to give Annan's peace plan time to work was just the latest justification.
Riad Seif, a prominent businessman and former member of parliament who recently left Syria and is now a member of the opposition, gave voice to what many Syrians are feeling about the futility of the "Friends of Syria" exercise when he asked the group to make its friendship actually mean something.
"After so many conferences, we fail to see how we have so many friends and people are dying every day," he told the group during a fiery address. "Help us put an end to this massacre."