Perceptions increasingly are that the west already is committed against Assad and that an Assad win is a western defeat.
Assad is on Iranian and Russian built crutches, his army literally so. His forces are increasingly manned by Lebanese and Iraqi volunteers and local sectarian militias as regular forces are depleted. An Assad win will mean an empowerment of a new alliance. Russia is far from a neutral agent here, it sold advanced anti-ship missiles and wants to sell advanced anti-air batteries as well, it is in this game to make certain Assad wins.
The sectarian nature of the conflict was advanced and promoted by the Assads so that he could define the debate. Two years ago this clearly was a popular Arab spring type uprising: many Sunni terrorists organisations had their HQ in Damascus, it was only a year ago that Hamas bolted from Damascus. Those who believe that the Russians were right all along have a terribly selective memory about how this conflict evolved. Also how can anyone so conveniently forget the horrors of Grozny? How was Putin’s behaviour any different then from Assad’s now?
Lavrov and Putin have extended Obama a way to save face: the peace conference. While the seating arrangements and placement of flags are debated, the Assad alliance can continue its Grozny campaign in the cities of Syria while showing a reasonable face to the outside world. The fighters on the other side are increasingly and successfully marginalized as a bunch of terrorists.
The game is zero sum. I’m not one to argue for intervention against Assad, the omens are terrible there. But Assad looks likely to prevail at an enormous cost of lives and at an enormous cost to our sense of international order. A bloody tyrant can kill tens if not by that time hundreds of thousands in a central, pivotal country and receive cover from major global players. No indictment by the ICC, no action by the UNSC, a return to very bad days.