After months of tentative dates, preliminary conferences, and backroom wrangling, the Geneva II peace talks are now penciled in for January 22. Considering the track record of delays, it is fair to wonder if this new date will stick. But the larger question facing the Geneva process is whether a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is even possible in the near term.

In a speech delivered this week to the Harvard National and International Security Program, Ambassador Frederic C. Hof addressed this larger question, defining the near term—for the sake of argument—as 2014.

Pace Samantha Power, Amb. Hof views the crisis in Syria as “a problem from Hell.” It is “one of those high-profile episodes of mass murder in faraway places whose challenges bedeviled American presidents in the 20th century… a problem for which no easy answers exist.” Given the prevailing American appetite for foreign intervention, it is tempting to see the complex crisis as “someone else’s civil war.”

So what is the prospect of addressing this calamity through the Geneva process? As Amb. Hof argues, “in order for there to be a Geneva conference worth having, it must be preceded by a noticeable and meaningful reduction in violence.”

To date, however, the Assad regime’s key backers have shown no interest in taking steps to tamp down the violence. The Assad regime derives the preponderance of its support from Iran and Russia, thus the road to peace must pass through Moscow and Tehran.

So how can the international community work to change the stance of Assad’s backers? Are there diplomatic avenues, perhaps in parallel outside or parallel to the Geneva process that might affect the wider calculus of interests? Amb. Hof views Tehran as the key lynchpin, and situates the Syria crisis within Tehran’s broader strategic thinking, not an end in itself. Iran perpetuates the status quo in Syria, not out of any particular affection for the Assad regime, but as an important aspect of its national self-defense vis-à-vis Israel. When one adopts this bird’s eye view, Amb. Hof sees a possible opening in Syria through the ongoing nuclear discussions.

The above is just a digest of the longer speech, well worth reading in full. To download the text, please click the icon below.

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