Obama’s challenge is that nothing he’s done so far has worked. And pressure will build for tougher U.S. action as the crisis worsens. In an effort to avoid that, the president has bought into the reconvening of a conference in Geneva where the U.S. and the Russians will try to work out a diplomatic solution, specifically some kind of transitional regime for Syria that could end the crisis. This effort should buy some time as Obama sorts out his domestic woes.

But the odds of Geneva actually working to end the crisis are slim to none. The rebels and the regime have no real incentive to compromise. And it’s not all clear that the Russians are prepared to pressure Assad into a transition, or that the U.S. is ready to accept a deal that could leave Assad resident in Syria and beyond reach of war crimes tribunals.

Most likely the Geneva process will end with no deal and no appreciable change in the situation on the ground. The real consequence will be to strip away (again) the illusion that there is a diplomatic end game. Indeed, the outcome in Syria will be shaped by what happens on the battlefield not in the genteel corridors of Geneva…

What’s left will be the option Obama has willfully tried to avoid from the start: incremental military actions. In and of themselves, those actions won’t change the balance of power on the ground. But they will put the U.S. in the position of having its bluff called by the regime, folding or raising the stakes with little assurance that escalation will work and that the Russians and the Iranians won’t counter with increased aid to Assad. An even messier and more dangerous proxy war could result.