FEW will disagree that Syria constitutes the biggest diplomatic failure of the past two years.

In that time, the country has slipped into anarchy as President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed his forces in an attempt to crush those who oppose him and the death toll has grown dramatically. The world be ashamed that, according to the UN's newest figures, it has allowed at least 60,000 people have been killed in some of the bloodiest fighting seen in the Middle East.

It is difficult to see any outcome that will end the fighting. Assad and his cronies seem determined to tough it out, even if they are only left with the capital Damascus and a friendly Alawite enclave with access to the Mediterranean. At the same time the rebels are equally determined to fight for as a long as it takes to oust their nemesis, even if that entails the destruction of what remains of the country's infrastructure.

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In the midst of all this mess the rest of the world has twiddled its thumbs and done nothing apart from uttering the usual platitudes about the need for something to be done.

Burned by America's experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has refused to become embroiled, fearful of a further foreign policy disaster in his second term in office. That unwillingness to act has passed the initiative to Russia and China, who both refuse to support any policy that involves a new beginning without their ally, Assad.

While that intransigence is understandable – regime change does not have a good record in recent years – it is clear that nothing will save Syria now unless Assad stands down. It must say something when even Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah and a key Assad loyalist, argues that a political solution has to be found sooner than later.

A chance comes this week when the UN's envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, chairs talks with US and Russian officials: for the good of everyone in the region, this must be grasped as the opportunity for a new approach.