One cannot use the word Syria in any traditional sense as the borders imagined by Sykes-Picot agreement are no more in force. Syria is disintegrated, unlikely to be put back in the same manner despite Obama-Putin agree that as the end goal. Neighboring Iraq is in no better shape as well and again unlikely to come back in any coherent manner.
Putin wants Sykes-Picot kind of role for himself and in his mind he offered a chair at the table to Obama. In his world, it was implicit that USA and West would ignore criminality of Putin's client - Assad - for getting an option to carve out spheres of influence. Putin may label ISIS as the contemporary Hitler; but for West, Putin-Assad alliance looks more like Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. There is less incentive for USA and West to join in Putin's scheme when for true stability demise of Assad is essential. Vocal democracies of West make it practically impossible for any Western Government to side with Russia in propping up Assad; regardless how many claims Putin and Assad do that they are slaying down IS.
In totalitarian worlds of Putin and Ayatollah of Iran, war crimes committed by Assad is not a problem. In their world, ability to carry your writ regardless of public opinion is the manifestation of true political power; it is thuggery at geopolitical level with least regards to international norms. Putin and Iran know that with a military intervention, they will not be able put back the old Syria. What Putin wants is:
- to protect his military presence in Syria so as Russian Navy retains access to Mediterranean and
- to retain the client state of Assad, in howsoever weaker form as possible, to serve Putin's whims.
The game plan for Putin is simple - go in the position of strength to the negotiation table. If few in West falls for the propaganda of "Russia brought order to Syria, Russia fought terrorists effectively"; it might help reduce sanctions against Russia as well. However, before Putin reaches to the stage of negotiations with a strengthened hand; question is will Russia avoid getting engulfed in Syrian civil war as like decades ago Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan and more recently USA in Iraq. There is no firm answer to know in advance, especially since even after mighty efforts Putin only got a stalemate in Ukraine.
As the option of putting boots on ground is politically not feasible, nor any kind of training rebels strategy is going to work; patience is the only way out for Obama Administration. Understanding that Syria is going to be divided as well as Iraq is going to be fragmented too; Washington is likely to be more near to truth than any wishful thinking. The question is whether Obama Administration is able to articulate this reality without getting pressurized by 'sound-bite politics'.
America's partners in the long run are going to be Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey; all Sunni states in Middle East. Supporting Saudi's in their 'quest of oil market share' so as oil price keeps going down is one of the best strategies to pin down both Iran and Russia. Longer term Kurdistan, carved out of Iraq and Syria, is likely to be a potential ally. But that will not happen unless either Erdogan withers away or he consolidates his power in the Turkish Parliament. If Obama Administration finds it difficult to establish 'no fly zone', but Turkey and France are ready to do that; why not let them lead the coalition of West? After all 'leading from behind' will not be a new criticism for Obama Administration. Being in the last inning, Obama Administration is free of political pressures. Given that, why not exploit that freedom and ignore 'do something calls' (which lead to more miscalculations) to serve America's longer term interests?
'Been there, done that'; yes there is that feeling. However, retaining America's military presence indirectly (via advisers) in Iraq and directly in Afghanistan; Obama Administration should be still able to address 'direct terrorist threats' if those arise. Else it is all going to be a patient long game while allowing partners to take lead and waiting for the new occupant of the White House. And since all other 'interventions' have yield poorly in any case; it might not be a bad idea.