WASHINGTON — President Obama this year defined his approach to crises like the civil war in Syria as “strategic patience and persistence.” But with Russian jets and missiles now rocketing through the skies over Syria, what he calls patience looks to many critics like paralysis.
Whatever it is called, Mr. Obama’s advisers say there is little they can do to change the situation in the near term. Proposals are being drafted for meetings in coming days, but Mr. Obama has made clear he is not willing to confront the Russians and risk an escalation, nor does he have a broad new strategy to resolve the conflict or defeat the Islamic State.
“There isn’t a solution at this point that they’re going to get done on their watch,” said Michael McFaul, a former White House adviser to Mr. Obama who later served as ambassador to Russia before returning to Stanford University. “They’re just going to contain it.”
Mr. Obama views suggestions for more robust action as a prescription for disaster. His advisers are exploring whether anything can be done to protect Syrian opposition allies targeted by Russian forces, but they are unwilling to provide defensive arms to use against Russian warplanes. Obama advisers concede they may be able to help their allies cope with the Russian bombing only after the fact.
Instead, they have been left to puzzle out the Rubik’s Cube of Middle East politics in which the move of each interlocking part seems to put a coherent solution even further out of reach. Every day makes clearer just how unclear the lines are, a point illustrated once again on Thursday when Russian cruise missiles fired at Syrian targets reportedly crashed in Iran.
As a result, advisers said Mr. Obama may have to essentially wait out Russia’s intervention. Frustrated by their own inability to resolve the crisis over more than four years, the president and his team express a quiet confidence that Moscow almost certainly will be no more successful.
While the Kremlin may seem to have seized the initiative, the White House has concluded that Russia actually has ensnared itself in a tribal struggle that will defy its power just as it has Washington’s — and that Moscow may come to regret. But Mr. Obama’s team harbors little illusion that the Syrian conflict will be resolved by the time he leaves office in 15 months.
That does not mean that Mr. Obama will not authorize changes in tactics on the ground. The administration is moving forward with plans to put fresh pressure on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, by providing ammunition and perhaps weapons to Syrian opposition forces and increasing airstrikes there.
But it remained unclear whether that would shift the overall balance on the battlefield. In the year since Mr. Obama authorized a military campaign against the Islamic State, the United States and its allies have conducted more than 7,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, yet the terrorist group still controls broad swaths of both countries.
The layers of complexity are hard to unravel. In Iraq, the United States finds itself on the same side as Iran in fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but on opposite sides in Syria over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Tehran whom Mr. Obama has demanded step down. The United States, however, has resisted military action against Mr. Assad, pressing its allies to focus instead on the Islamic State inside Syria, even as Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia want to topple the government.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the case that the United States is in a box of its own creation. “You have allies who do not want to undercut ISIS because it will strengthen the center government,” he said while in New York for the United Nations session. “The U.S. is not capable of fighting ISIS because of the concerns its allies have that this will strengthen a government they find unacceptable.”
Mr. Obama agreed at a news conference last week that one reason his program of training moderate Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State had failed was because those fighters were more interested in removing Mr. Assad, who has been waging war against his own population.
But the White House argues that in deciding to bolster Mr. Assad, Russia is lengthening the conflict because it is not distinguishing between the Islamic State and less radical opposition groups as it bombs those fighting the government.
“Russia’s efforts to counter the moderate Syrian opposition only make it harder for members of the moderate Syrian opposition to step forward and participate in a political transition that even Russia acknowledges will be necessary to solve the problem inside of Syria,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said. Moderate rebels under attack by Russia, he added, “might make common cause with extremists, only exacerbating the extremist problem inside of Syria.”
Irrespective of Moscow’s intervention, Mr. Earnest said that the United States would continue its efforts to destroy the Islamic State, noting that America and its allies have conducted 34 strikes against the group in the week since Russia began its operations in Syria.
Administration officials privately said they did not want to let their strategic objectives be driven by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Their top priority is to avoid an accidental clash between Russian and American aircraft in the skies over Syria, a prospect that deeply worries Pentagon officials.
But American officials hold out little hope of being able to deter Russia from continuing its military operations in Syria or of being able to raise the political or economic cost high enough to stop them. At the same time, some officials dismiss what they call wishful thinking that the United States and Russia could come to some agreement on the way forward. So they wait for Russia to bog down the way it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Critics of the Obama administration have pointed to missed opportunities over the four years of the Syrian civil war. They argue that Mr. Obama should have armed pro-American rebels much earlier and either should never have drawn a “red line” warning against the use of chemical weapons or followed through on his threat to launch missile strikes against Mr. Assad for violating it.
Mr. Obama’s advisers said even if those decisions were wrong in hindsight, that does not help at this point. “We own both of those mistakes,” Mr. McFaul said. “But that doesn’t mean you have the solution for today. Rethinking those mistakes doesn’t give you the solution for the moment that we’re in today.”