How do we know that? The past three years are how we know that. Those years have been a period during which the president’s own top national security advisors were unable to get him to take more decisive action to stop the decay in Syria — which gave way to the upheaval that now fuels not only the rise of the world’s most dangerous extremists but also the overflow of refugees into Europe and neighboring countries in the Middle East. But Putin, apparently, has more sway in the Oval Office than Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and a host of others whose counsel went unheeded ever did.
Putin’s decisiveness in engaging in Syria has shifted the balance of power in that country. It has not only unquestionably shored up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it has also sent a message that opponents of Assad (including some ostensible U.S. allies among the rebel fighters in Syria) were going to be the targets of the fiercest military attacks rather than the Islamic State extremists the United States and its allies were seemingly seeking to defeat. The Russians talked up their opposition to the Islamic State, but the pattern of their initial strikes indicated that the primary goal was protecting their man in Damascus. (Putin’s long-term motives in Syria remain misunderstood by many in Washington. They do not seem to understand that he does not seek to transform the country or do any of the things that would make Russia’s involvement a dangerous quagmire for him. He simply seeks to ensure that the regime in Syria’s capital is acceptable to him. That means keeping Assad in place or being involved enough to have a clear say in choosing his successor. That is all. If the rest of the country roils and sends refugees into Europe, shoring up nationalists and weakening support for the EU, all the better for Putin. In fact, it would be a win-win for the Russian Tarzan.)