It is clear that, politics aside, U.S. intelligence and defense experts are sensing that Russia’s game plan in Syria is about more than getting a warm water naval port in Latakia. Russia may be interested in supporting the Assad regime, but reports from Putin’s recent meeting in Moscow with Assad did not suggest that the Syrian President left happy. Syria needs military assistance desperately and the Russians are clearly providing his forces with air support, artillery weapons, and training forces—at a minimum. This initiative already appears to have rejuvenated Assad’s military forces as they prepare for the winter.
From the White House’s perspective there has to be a major concern that Putin’s engagement–perhaps even vis-à-vis Iraq–is significant and regional. Putin did not decide to increase aid to Assad so dramatically unless he was pursuing a bigger goal. This is what the U.S. national security team probably has concluded to ratchet up its position first in light of their failed arming program and second as collateral to their on-going aerial attacks against ISIS. Tiptoeing into the conflict, as the President now has decided in sending 50 U.S. Special Forces as advisers to assist Syrian rebel forces, represents an exceedingly modest, merely symbolic response from Obama to what he undoubtedly is hearing from his advisers is a major, strategic Russian policy move; although it permits him to keep his pledge to keep U.S. boots out of Syria. On the other hand, it gives him a wedge in the door to an eventual, larger, U.S. engagement.
Playing on the other side of the field from the Russians in Syria was already potentially a dangerous game. With Russia trying to bolster Assad in his war against the insurgent rebels and Obama supporting the rebels fighting against ISIS and Assad, the scene is ripe for disaster.
Whether this Russian escalation is one joined by a larger Iran strategy is not clear. What is obvious is that the President is exceedingly skittish about engaging in Syria in a meaningful way; if it involves troops on the ground. The President must believe that the Russians are going to get sucked into a conflict as they were in Afghanistan and he wants to keep the U.S. out completely. Alternatively, if Obama believes that there is serious danger for U.S. interests in the region then he needs not to pussyfoot around but to take genuine control and leader. He cannot be reactive and needs to be assertive.