The Obama administration may be right that Russia's decision to intervene militarily in Syria will backfire against Vladimir Putin. But for now the audacious Russian president has succeeded in altering events in that country's civil war to his advantage, reestablishing Russia as a regional power and, probably not least from his perspective, embarrassing the United States.
The administration apparently lacked intelligence about Russian intentions or, if it did know that Putin was planning a major operation to rescue Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was unable to dissuade him. The U.S. now must contend not only with the reckless Russian military intervention in Syria but also with a diplomatic offensive by Moscow that has won favor with the government of Iraq, a supposed U.S. ally. Some Iraqi politicians are even inviting Russia to launch airstrikes against Islamic State in that country. Iraq is already sharing intelligence with Russia and Syria.
That isn't all. The administration's halting and halfhearted efforts to build up "moderate" fighters in Syria to take on Islamic State have made it easy for Putin to argue that the superior strategy for suppressing that group is to shore up Assad. Never mind that Assad's brutal suppression of peaceful protests helped energize Islamic State and other extremists and contributed to a hemorrhage of refugees.
The depressing truth is that there isn't much Obama can do to prevent Russia from intervening in a civil war in which the United States also has taken sides (albeit to little effect). Still, the U.S. and its allies should resist Putin's attempt to hijack the campaign against Islamic State for his own purposes and they must make it clear that there are limits to what he can do in his attempt to reclaim superpower status for Russia.
On the first point, the U.S. rightly is rejecting Putin's assertion that the best way to defeat Islamic State is to support Assad. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says that the U.S. will coordinate with Russia in Syria only to the extent of holding "technical discussions" to ensure that U.S. and Russian aircraft stay out of each other's way. Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue its efforts to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Beyond that, U.S. options are limited. When President Obama said the other day that the U.S. wouldn't engage in a "proxy war" with Russia in Syria, he was making a virtue out of necessity. Even before the emergence of Islamic State, identifying and arming "moderate" anti-Assad forces was a problematic strategy.
While Putin is wrong to suggest that all of Assad's opponents are terrorists or Islamic extremists, the line between "moderate" and "extreme" forces can be a shifting one.
Another proposal — endorsed by Hillary Rodham Clinton — is that the U.S. establish a no-fly zone in Syria that would protect civilians from attack by Assad's forces and Islamic State. But, as Clinton later acknowledged, that would be impractical without acquiescence by Russia, which has rejected the idea as a violation of Syria's sovereignty and probably would see it as a challenge to its own freedom of movement. Creation of such a zone could risk a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
In the past, there have been hints that Russia might help negotiate a political settlement of the civil war in Syria in which Assad would agree to eventually step down or at least share power with some of his opponents. That still might be a possibility — and the U.S. should continue to explore it — but Russia's actions in the last 10 days have strengthened Assad's bargaining power.
Beyond its consequences for Syria, Russia's offensive is part of a larger attempt to assert influence that the U.S. and its allies need to counter. Last week, NATO defense ministers announced that they had stepped up security measures in member states in Central and Eastern Europe already nervous because of Russian incursions into Ukraine. NATO also must shore up the defenses of Turkey, whose airspace was violated by Russian warplanes in what Moscow said was a mistake caused by bad weather.
As for Syria, Russia's intervention is unlikely to end — and could exacerbate — a conflict that has cost more as many as 200,000 lives and uprooted millions of people. Far from saving Syria, Putin may have prolonged its agony.