Though there is scant recognition of this fact in Washington, the recent deployment of Russian marines and combat aircraft to Syria is one of the greatest foreign policy setbacks for the Obama administration, one that could tarnish the President's legacy more than Benghazi, the Crimean crisis, or the failure of his peace initiative in Israel/Palestine. As tens of thousands of refugees pour into Europe, driven in large part by the crisis in Syria, the magnitude of the international failure to contain that conflict has become increasingly evident. Persistent chaos in Syria portends strife for the entire Middle East and North Africa and an exacerbation of the factors that have strengthened groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim world. The insertion of Russian military forces into this maelstrom does not herald a cure, but rather an intensification of the ailment.
Russia's motives are murky, but its actions circumvent any need for parsing through Moscow's intent. By stationing its planes, helicopters and troops in terrain held by the Assad regime, Russia has ordained that its military assets will operate to the tactical benefit of Damascus. All talk of Moscow's willingness to see a negotiated end to the Assad regime is thus meaningless, as negotiations will ever and always be driven by facts on the ground, and the security of Russian forces will be dependent on the integrity of the Damascus government and its strategic position.
This means that the last, slight chance for the U.S. and its allies to intervene meaningfully in the Syrian civil war is now lost. The only way to enlist significant Syrian forces in the struggle against ISIS was to take sides against the Assad regime, as ISIS's fund of human capital flowed from its opposition to Damascus. As long as ISIS constituted the strongest opposition to Assad, the U.S. stood no chance of enlisting local allies to fight that threat. If the U.S. had weighed in against Assad, not with ground troops, but with an air campaign to ground Damascus's air force, there was a chance that other opposition groups and defecting government units would turn on ISIS once the Damascus regime had stepped down or fallen. This would obviously have been a risky strategy, but it was the best hope of eliminating ISIS and restoring a semblance of order and security to the region.
Now that hope is gone. Declaring a no-fly zone for Assad's aircraft would now have to apply to the Russian jets and helicopters deployed to Latakia. If the Russians defied such an order, it could result in violence, destruction, and world war. By deploying its forces Moscow has thus raised the stakes on any tactical opposition to the Damascus regime ultimately high, ensuring that Assad is here to stay for as long as the Russian position holds.
I will not pretend to guess what this means for the long-term strategic "balance of power," and I am not overly concerned how this will affect American or Russian prestige. The new Russian firepower may actually advance the tactical fight against ISIS, though if it does so it would almost certainly be at a shockingly high human cost, given how entrenched the political opposition to the Assad regime has been. On the other hand, as the Syrian civil war churns on the Russians may encounter nothing but lost blood and treasure for their pains. However the situation plays out, one thing seems certain: this move by Russia does not bode well for the Syrian people, or the world. Moreover, for whatever does come to pass the U.S. will, because of its inaction, share in the blame.