Just four months ago, the question in the West was whether to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s military assets after finally acknowledging that the Syrian regime had crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons after an attack so blatant that ignoring it was no longer an option. That led to the stunning display of indecision and retreat by the US and the UK this summer that all but eliminated the threat of Western intervention.  Now Reuters reports that the retreat may be complete, as the opposition coalition complains that the West has begun to embrace Assad and the Alawites as a bulwark against al-Qaeda:

Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources said.

The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of al Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.

“Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.

Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the Coalition member added: “Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people.”

In fact, it’s not just the West that seems to be giving up on fighting Assad and his regime now.  An unnamed “Middle East diplomat” told Reuters that his advice to the opposition was to be “creative” and accept that Assad and his regime will control Syria for at least the short- to middle-term future.  Both the US and Russia are now on the same page, according to this diplomat, in keeping Assad in charge of the military and government for an undetermined “transitional” period.  A refusal now would leave the opposition with only a handful of allies — Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Turkey.

That represents a triumph of the first order for Russia.  They have opposed the veiled and not-so-veiled attempts of the West to force regime change in Syria as part of their “Arab Spring” strategy, a strategy which produced the deadly debacle of the failed state in Libya. In just four months, Moscow (and reality) has forced Obama and David Cameron to commit humiliating reversals and submit to their preferred policy outcome — a chastened West reluctantly supporting their client dictator.  The most galling part of that triumph is that Russia was largely correct in preventing a repeat of what happened in Libya, even though that means keeping an Iranian satellite in place.  As a bonus, the exercise has weakened Western relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which will boost Iran’s influence in the region as well as Russia’s.

It was obvious two years ago that there were no good outcomes in Syria, only variably bad outcomes.  This won’t even be the worst of those — a failed Syrian state serving as an al-Qaeda safe zone would be that — but the manner in which this appears to be resolving is hardly the optimal outcome even from a bad set of choices. If the US and NATO had admitted its failures in Libya, it would never have repeated them in Syria, but at least we will probably be spared the spectacle of the West explicitly creating a failed state before our eyes.

If anyone wonders why the opposition will stick around after hearing this, Jamie Dettmer explains clearly why they still need the West … and why they may end up joining Assad themselves:

Last weekend, Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in northern Syria executed a prominent moderate rebel commander—a slaying that has exacerbated divisions between Islamic militants and degraded morale inside the beleaguered Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is facing a defection crisis.

The slaying of Ammar al-Wawi by jihadists linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, or ISIS, is the latest in a series of targeted abductions and assassinations of leading moderate rebels. FSA sources say they suspect that al-Wawi was executed on Saturday after being cornered three days earlier, along with three of his men, near Bab al-Hawa as he crossed back into Syria from Turkey. …

Al-Wawi, a former Syrian government intelligence officer who defected to the rebel cause in July 2011, was a regular interlocutor with the international media, often serving as the FSA’s spin-doctor in videos uploaded to YouTube and in interviews with Arabic-language television channels.

More than a year ago, al-Wawi was apparently upbeat about the prospects of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, saying that the regime was “like the walking dead.” Now, his execution has added to a sense of foreboding among brigades still aligned with the FSA.

The end result of this may be a big outbreak of Syrian nationalism, which would ironically suit Iran’s purposes as well as the West’s.