Yeah, there’s this really disconcerting tendency to portray “people who belong to Assad’s religious sect” as “card-carrying members of Assad’s military apparatus”. The portion of the American foreign policy establishment who was dead set on marketing the idea of a definitively identifiable group of “moderate rebels” had a field day trying to spin Sunni rebel massacres of Alawite civilians as military engagement with Assad himself – if only to avoid admitting that the people they wanted to arm against Assad also wanted to wipe his entire tribe out of existence.
Even now, no one seems to be able to admit that “Assad is a complete monster” and “innocent people who belong to his tribe are being massacred by sectarian bigots” are not mutually exclusive.
The (very real) interventionist portion of the American foreign policy establishment notwithstanding, I believe that the concern described above (massacre of Christian and Alawite civilians) has dominated Obama administration thinking on Syria. The Obama administration has pursued, I think, a fairly consistent and coherent strategy that it has not been able to describe rhetorically; it has sought to force the Assad regime to a coalition government with “moderate” rebels (one that would involve the resignation of Assad himself), but has resisted taking any steps that would inevitably result in the collapse of that regime.
This has meant supporting the rebels (and looking the other way when the Gulf states support the rebels), but stopping short of steps that would ensure rebel military victory on the ground. It has meant keeping an open back-channel with the Assad regime (through coordination of activity against ISIS, and through Russia). It has meant resisting airstrikes targeted against the regime that would necessarily escalate into a campaign to destroy the regime.
And the reason for this is that, from the experience of Libya and Iraq, the administration well understands the potential for brutality and genocide in aftermath of a clear rebel military victory. In particular, I suspect that no one in the Obama administration wishes to preside over the potential extinction of the Syrian Orthodox Christian community. It also appreciates the inevitability of chaos as various rebel groups struggle to pick up the pieces of a shattered regime. And it understands that a collapse of the Syrian state is good for no one in the neighborhood; Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon would all suffer.
The administration has failed to describe this strategy for reasons that should be obvious. It doesn’t want to describe allies in the rebel movement as potential (or real) butchers; it doesn’t want to admit publicly that the butchers in the Assad regime may be a practical necessity. It has looked like dithering, but the administration has held to a core idea of what it wants, and has used various means to get there.
And of course, this strategy has failed. We are as far as ever from a coalition government; while the Russians might eventually push Assad aside, any kind of reconciliation will happen on their terms, and it’s a struggle to see the remaining rebels accept any kind of restored sovereignty by the Damascus government. We barely have any idea of who or what could replace ISIS, beyond “some group that’s marginally less horrible than ISIS.” And the destruction and dislocation produced by the civil war has become nearly incalculable, and is destabilizing established political institutions as far away as the United Kingdom.
This doesn’t quite mean that the administration erred in pursuing this strategy, as whatever costs the people of the world are paying in the Syrian civil war, the US has paid very little. And to be vulgar, that matters a great deal in political terms; Syria will barely register as a an issue in the 2016 election. If the United States had helped sweep a rebel coalition to power in 2011, with attendant massacres of Assad supporters, throngs of refugees generated by disorder and bad governance, and fitful civil war leading to gruesome casualties on both sides, the issue would probably loom larger, especially if some group of American citizens found themselves on the wrong side of a fight. And of course it does no good to say that the alternative would have generated twice as many dead, and twice as many refugees (although at this point it’s surely possible that either US intervention or direct US support for Assad would have resulted in less destruction than what we’ve actually seen), because we don’t get to live in counter-factual worlds.