What does the USA get out of this? I genuinely don't understand.
Relations between Russia and the west are terrible right now, Syria is
a recruiting and training ground for radical Islamists, and the
refugee crisis has emboldened right-wing nationalist factions within
western nations. What was the upside for the USA and the west? What
was the point?
A lot of people don't understand US involvement and it's a little bit tricky. Syria is strategically very important, not just towards Russia but also towards Iran, Iraq and Isis. The US likely had significant military interests in Syria the whole time.
That said, it's important to recognize that the US involvement in Syria was never all that much. If the US was a war-strategy-above-all-else nation, we'd have sent troops into Syria. We never did that.
The Arab spring happened, which may have been encouraged and even facilitated somewhat by the CIA and the darkweb, but lets get real. The CIA can't cause protests over multiple Muslim nations all at the same time simply by websites and propaganda. That's preposterous. The Arab spring happened in the Muslim world and the US got involved here and there, for better or worse, the biggest military involvement was Libya. Syria, there was significant supplying to the resistance, but no direct assistance, not one US air strike or missile strike against Assad, at least until 2 days ago. Some strikes against Isis, and remember, this is calendar year 2011-2012 when the US involvement started that I'm speaking about.
Why would the US aid the resistance? One - Assad's a Russian Allie. Two - Assad had blocked a natural gas pipeline to Europe, which would have been good for Syria, but bad for Russia - Assad blocked it as a favor to Russia. Natural gas doesn't ship well, it's expensive and needs to be transported under pressure on cargo-ships. It's ideal for pipeline transfer, unlike oil, which can be moved by cargo ship very efficiently. Three, if Assad falls, they have a foothold into setting up military bases, which Assad would never let the US set up, and four, the resistance looked like it had a shot at wining. Assad was unpopular. I'll throw a small 5 in there too. Assad demonstrated he can be quite un-humanitarian, using starvation and chemical weapons in addition to traditional warfare. But that came later in the civil war, the first 4 were the primary reasons the US was interested and offered some support and weapons.
Now, the Resistance didn't overthrow Assad and Syria entered into a long civil war. Over 200,000 were killed. Was this the fault of the US for supporting the resistance? Was this the fault of Assad for being brutal and arguably, making martyrs out of his enemies and making things worse? Was this the fault of Russia for giving aid to Assad? Probably some of all 3. I don't like to blame the resistance as a "cause" because when people are angry enough to try to overthrow a government - that's a symptom. I think the blame needs to be on the parties who had choice. The US - chose to encourage and give weapons to the resistance, Russia chose to give aid to Assad and Assad, basically chose genocide.
At this point, Obama and Syria got in the news and Obama wrestled with this one, big time. Hillary wanted to go in. She's more of a war hawk than Obama. (she was still there, so this had to be 2012). I heard an Obama staffer talk about this. Obama was genuinely unsure what to do. The Military intervention in Libya was seen negatively, the US population was largely anti-intervention after Iraq and Syria was a bear-trap, being so easily supplied and allies with Russia.
But to your question - why would Obama consider going in and why did people like Hillary and McCain want to? Because 1) strategic advantages to "winning" Syria - and setting up military bases there. 2) Assad was a butcher. He really was. He killed more people than anyone in the 2010s, and he used and maintained a supply of chemical weapons even though Syria was a nation that signed an agreement to not use them. And 3) at this point, Assad was a key player in driving the refugee crisis and he'd even worked with Isis, buying oil from them directly and exchanging military information - Assad had no problem with Isis attacking the anti-Assad Syrians. His ties with Isis and reluctance to fight them was a major thorn to the US. and 4) the Natural gas pipeline that the US wanted them to build. So there were, in 2012, strategic, economic and humanitarian reasons for the US to want to overthrow Assad - big big time. That's the real answer to your question. Overflow Assad and maybe the refugee crisis gets cut in half - overnight. That's HUGE.
But the risks, with Russia so close, where very high. In the end, Obama chose not to do it. Some CIA supplying continued, but basically Obama chose non-involvement.
After that, the Russians came in and promised to get rid of Assad's chemical weapons (which they never did), and it became the one sided massacre that it is today.
U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war was bound to anger Russia and
draw them into the conflict to protect their sphere of influence.
Lets be clear. The civil war started with the Arab Spring. The US favored the anti-Assad rebellion and supported them. But the US didn't want to draw Russia into the conflict.
Russia was smart, they played the waiting game and after the chemical attacks from a few years ago, and after Obama considered sending in the military but chose not to, Putin said "I'll deal with their chemical weapons" and Russia came into Syria and among other things, built huge military airbases. The US, probably assumed that those were for bombing Isis, but Russia and Assad were more interested in the Syrian resistance than Isis.
I don't think our involvement in Syria angered the Russians too much cause I think Putin figured he always had the upper hand. I think Putin thought that the US involvement wouldn't work and it was too timid an involvement, and he was right.
Even Trump's missile strikes, the US alerted Russia ahead of time. An effort was made to not hit a single Russian plane or member of military. Whether the US wants to anger the Russians is a fair question, too long to get into here, but I don't see it. The lack of involvement in Syria was in part, caution to not get the Russians involved.
And, lets not forget, the Russians have gone out of their way to anger the US on several different occasions in recent years - frankly, angering them back would be justified - IMHO. But, why poke the bear just to make the bear mad. It makes no sense.
The US has made an effort to not step on the Russian's toes with Syria. If the US had sent in a ton of troops and overthrown Assad, that would have probably angered them quite a bit, but the US never did that. It was discussed though.
and in the process Syria is becoming a bombed-out wasteland
Lets me be very clear on this. Russia and Assad would bomb Aleppo into rubble no matter what the US does. At this point, US intervention might save lives, not cost them, cause the Russians and Assad are showing zero restraint. They're perfectly happy to drop thousands and thousands of bombs and even use chemical weapons.
This is one of the things I think you have mixed up. This isn't the US vs. Russia at war. This was the US wanting the resistance side of the civil war to win, but never committing their army behind it and after a few years, mostly pulling out. Then Russia came in and it was their baby. It was US then Russia, more than US vs. Russia. Russia kind of watched and waited, then came in as the US left.
A Proxy war isn't this, then that. A proxy war is 2 big powers pushing at the same time. Maybe you could say it was a proxy war in 2013 but I don't think the degree of supplying the Syrian resistance quite meets that criteria. The US was never all in. It was never more than a secondary buildup. There was no massive air-strike support like we gave the Libyan resistance against Qaddafi.
Assad has worked with ISIS. I very much doubt that claim.
I don't know why so many doubt that claim when it's not hard to look up.
Multiple sources: Jan 2017, Dec 2016, April 2016, Sept 2015, Feb 2015, June 2014.
As I said - complicated. Assad is funding Isis, while at the same time, telling the west, You need me to fight Isis. Take that in for a minute.