President Barack Obama has long insisted that any solution to the Syrian civil war will require President Bashar al-Assad to yield power to his “moderate” opponents. Russia and Iran don’t care what President Obama thinks.[1] The Russians decided to intervene on behalf of Assad in late Summer 2015.[2] Planes and personnel began arriving in September. Now the Russians have expanded their firepower in Syria with a long-range artillery system, while Iran has sent a small force that may be a spear-head for a larger contribution. Early Russian airstrikes chiefly have hit the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. Meanwhile, the American effort to raise, train, and arm a force of “moderates”[3] to fight just ISIS has turned into a highly-public exploding cigar.

For their part, both Turkey and the Sunni Arab states insist that Assad has to go as part of any negotiated peace. Neither Shi’ite Iran nor the Shi’ite Hezbollah group in Lebanon will agree to one of their chief allies being sent off, to be replaced by conservative Sunnis. Then there is the whole problem of ISIS, which is equally dangerous to the Shi’ite regimes in Iraq and Syria.[4]

All this is deeply frustrating for President Obama, who has had several chances to involve the United States more deeply in Syria and wisely did not take them. Equally frustrating is the torrent of abuse that he has suffered from Republican critics.[5] President Obama described the recent Russian intervention in the civil war as born “not out of strength but out of weakness.” In an obvious allusion to the “Arab Afghans” who flocked to oppose the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the President argued that attacking non-ISIS forces as well as attacking ISIS will “turbocharge ISIS recruitment and jihadist recruitment.” President Obama went on to say that “an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work. And they will be stuck there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”

Perhaps spurred by the Russian intervention, the Obama administration began touting a new initiative of its own.[6] A projected 3,000 to 5,000 Arabs in northeastern Syria will be armed in order to co-operate with the much larger Kurdish forces and both will be better supported by air strikes from Turkey. The objective of the offensive will be to isolate the ISIS capital city of Raqqa. The U.S. also hopes that its Syrian clients can cut off a 60 mile stretch of the border with Turkey between Kilis and the Euphrates River to end the influx of foreign fighters to ISIS. However, the new plan seems intended to counter Russia as much as ISIS: an expanded area of air operations might cause the Russians to restrict their own strikes.

One possibility is that the Russo-Iranian intervention will not turn into a quagmire. Additional fire-power might turn the tide against the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. It could reduce the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. It could presage a greater involvement of Iranian forces in opposing ISIS in Iraq. Another possibility is that the Russians aren’t opposed to a protracted struggle against ISIS. Russia has been fighting Islamists in Chechnya for a long time. Success could give the Russians diplomatic leverage over their intervention in Ukraine.

[1] Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar, “Obama Sees Russia Failing In Syria Effort,” NYT, 3 October 2015.

[2] See: “The Teeter-Totter.”

[3] See: “Arming the Moderates.”

[4] It is possible that the current Syrian refugee crisis in Europe was facilitated by Turkey in an effort to exert pressure on the Europeans to demand action against Assad. See: “the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” At the same time, Turkey is equally unable to prevent the crossing of its territory by foreign fighters going to join ISIS. Perhaps the Turkish state is just really weak. Or perhaps not.

[5] They seem to have learned nothing from the Iran disaster.

[6] Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “U.S. Aims To Put More Pressure on ISIS in Syria,” NYT, 5 October 2015.

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