A week into Russia’s military intervention in Syria, some top White House advisers and National Security Council staffers are trying to persuade President Barack Obama to scale back U.S. engagement there, to focus on lessening the violence and, for now, to give up on toppling the Syrian regime.
In addition, administration officials and Middle East experts on both sides of the debate tell us, Obama’s foreign-policy team no longer doubts that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and primarily target opposition groups other than the Islamic State, including those trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The administration came to this conclusion late. Despite warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin’s military buildup was intended to keep Assad in power, the White House nonetheless decided to explore cooperating with Russia on the ground. Throughout the summer and into the fall, top Russian officials — including Putin himself in a meeting last month with Obama at the U.N. — said they were not committed to keeping Assad in power for the long term, and would only target Islamic State fighters in their military offensive, according to U.S. officials.