And with shades of the Cold War, as Russia supports the Syrian regime, the U.S. has moved closer and closer to military involvement. Our first choice was to outsource the funding, arms and training of rebels to Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who chose, naturally enough, expansionist Sunni groups hoping to push Iranian-supported Shiites out of power. American arms are intended to end up with the Free Syrian Army, but according to David Ignatius "Islamist fighters...have formed the backbone of the Free Syrian Army for nearly two years. The Syrian opposition is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and the Islamists (especially al-Nusra's recruits) have been among the best fighters."
The clear implication is that regardless of what they say to the U.S. to win our support, their long-term aims may be incompatible with ours. The possibility remains for direct U.S. military involvement, although hard on the heels of Hagel's statement about arming rebels, U.S. Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven strongly warned against considering the use of U.S. troops.
If American policy in Syria seems feckless, it is because it is feckless.
The President initially tried to "win" Assad to the West by sending envoys and lifting parts of the embargo. But Assad was not "won," and when he turned his army on his people, the President, apparently trying to satisfy American sensibilities with rhetoric, demanded that he step down. But Assad did not step down and rebel bands struck back, which did not displease the President, who was perhaps hoping that the rebels could do what his words alone could not do -- get rid of Assad quickly and without American involvement. The discovery that some rebels have serious jihadist tendencies offended American sensibilities, so the U.S. declined to "arm the rebels." That refusal apparently satisfied American public opinion, which leans heavily against any involvement in Syria; but the grossness of the slaughter, particularly the use of chemicals, did offend American sensibilities. The President's sliding "red line" on the use of chemical weapons offended some parties and satisfied others. Claiming to find "moderate, secular rebels" will satisfy some, but the admitted interconnectedness of the rebels -- and the fact that the Islamists are far and away the best fighters -- will continue to worry others.
The administration's policy on Syria has been a series of visceral reactions to graphic events and horrific casualties, offset by a gigantic distaste for confrontation. Without a definition of America's strategic interests, such as a defeat for both Iran and the Sunni jihadists, the chance remains that America might be dragged into another front in the Fourth Great War. A war in which neither side is our friend.