“Russia has played a horrible hand brilliantly. We folded what could have been a pretty good hand,” argues Ryan Crocker, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in nearly every hot spot in the Middle East and is among the nation’s wisest analysts of the region. “The Russians were able to turn a defensive position into an offensive one because we were so completely absent.”…

Given these reversals for U.S. policy, should the Obama administration simply accede to Moscow? That would be a significant mistake, in my view. For all of Putin’s vainglorious boasting, the Russians can’t defeat the Islamic State. Quite the contrary, Russian intervention (in partnership with Iran) may fuel the Sunni insurgency even more. And if U.S. military partners in the region — such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and even Israel — really think Washington has ceded the ground to Moscow, the region could become even more chaotic.

Obama still has several potent, relatively low-risk options, if he’ll use them. The United States and its allies can impose “safe zones” in northern and southern Syria to allow humanitarian assistance and greater security. Opposition leader Walid al-Zoubi said Monday in Washington that if such zones were established, the opposition would work with Syrian government organizations to restore basic services. These safe zones would recognize the reality that Assad cannot control more than half of Syria’s territory, even with Russian bombs.