If you held up two maps of Syria — one from last September, when Russian forces first intervened in the chaotic civil war there, and one today — you would see that the battle lines look quite similar.
Russia’s intervention has succeeded in freezing its interests, along with Syria’s battle lines, largely in place. But hundreds of airstrikes, dozens of casualties and months of diplomacy have done little to demonstrably advance those interests: The war remains stalemated, with key areas under rebel control and pro-government forces unable to retake them.
When Russia intervened a little over a year ago, I did not panic:
So don't panic that Russians are in Syria. If Russia gets a deal to save an Alawite state in the west or to regain control of Syria, Russia will get their bases near the coast. So any worries that Russian troops will get Russia a base if we don't cooperate with Putin are nonsense. Cooperating with Russia will just get Russia the bases without forcing Russia to pay a price for intervention.
Russia does not want to fight for Assad. Putin wants to save Assad as cheaply as possible so he can get back to picking apart eastern Ukraine while consolidating the conquest of Crimea (and then Belarus will be in Putin's crosshairs, prior to focusing on the Baltic states). Our cooperation is key to letting Russia win in Syria on the cheap.
Don't fall for Putin's ploy. Bid him good luck and tell him to have fun storming the castle.
Or is President Obama still in the business of providing post-election "flexibility" to Putin?
Of course, it is frustrating to me that we've bizarrely tried to work with Russia, which has the effect of bolstering Russia's play for Syria and harming rebels, rather than make Russia pay a price for intervention in Syria.
No, in our brave new world of Smart Diplomacy (now with nuance!), the Russians set red lines for our involvement there:
"Direct aggression" by the United States toward the Syrian government and armed forces would lead to "frightening, tectonic shifts" in the Middle East, RIA news agency cited Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying on Saturday.
I certainly don't want to go to war with Russia over Assad. But given the balance of forces, neither should Russia. But we should try to support rebels more to help defeat Assad, which would hurt Russia both as a result; and raise the cost to Russia of intervention in the process of getting to that Assad defeat.
UPDATE: Strategypage now thinks that the rebellion is being defeated:
The Assad government is clearly defeating the 2011 rebellion. This is being done with the help of Russia, Iran and a temporary anti-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) coalition that includes NATO, Turks, Arab Gulf states and Kurdish separatists. ISIL is likely to disappear as a major factor by early 2017 as the two major ISIL held cities (Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in eastern Syria) are about to be attacked and cleared of ISIL control. That will remove a major (over a third) of the rebel combat capability in Syria. Turkish troops entered Syria in late August to clear the ISIL and Kurdish groups from northern Syria. All this has weakened the rebels sufficiently to enable to Syrian army to advance against Aleppo and against rebels operating outside the capital (Damascus) since 2012. Turkey has offered to get involved in the offensive against Raqqa. Government forces are on their way towards regaining control of the southern and Iraqi borders by early 2017.
There's a lot of stuff, so do read it all.
And while I don't doubt that Assad's forces have the edge now, does that mean that Assad will defeat the rebellion?
Unless Sunni rebels start to defect to the regime, I don't see how Assad has the troops to hold much conquered territory from active opposition.
Can Assad's forces really fill a vacuum in the east when ISIL is defeated?
And what does defeat mean for ISIL in eastern Syria? Do ISIL forces scatter and go guerilla and pure terrorist? Do some ISIL gunmen who are less committed jihadis simply flow to other groups fighting Assad? Or does ISIL largely flee Syria, giving others a problem but lifting a burden from Assad?
Do we and Arab states backing rebels increase aid to rebels to help them regain ground at the borders?
Assad's army really is shattered, relying on local militias to hold ground and relying on Hezbollah and a Shia foreign legion organized by Iran for shock troops. Russia provides firepower and logistics to support Assad's ground- and air-based firepower. But who polices newly held territory? Barrel bombs? Foreigners too few in number to do so?
I can't judge whether Aleppo is truly about to fall to Assad. Assad has been trying for over 4 years to actively take the city and has failed. Assad's forces are making progress now but they have not won yet:
Syrian rebels said on Tuesday they had repelled an army offensive in southern Aleppo as Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded residential areas, while nations spoke of rebuilding a peace process the United States broke off this week.
New aid might rejuvenate rebel fortunes. Even a rebel defeat might just mean the rebels go from civil war where they hold ground to insurgency where they bleed Assad's forces who occupy territory.
The rebellion might start cracking as they see Assad's force winning and lose faith in American ability to support them.
But if the rebellion doesn't crack, how will Assad's backers react when they see the light at the end of the tunnel is just years more of fighting and dying to support their dictator?
The war outcome may well be on the knife's edge, with momentum slowly and then quickly build, determining which side finally begins to crack and seek personal survival rather than group victory.