[…] The real question, then, is whether Putin sees bolstering the Assad government as an end in itself or as a means to an end. If it is the latter – if Putin is thinking in terms of chess, the preferred game of many Russians, and planning several moves ahead – a diplomatic process, in which Assad is removed at some point, is conceivable. Russia might support such a process; after all, Putin is not known for his sentimentality. Indeed, he might embrace a political process that enabled him to demonstrate Russia’s central role in shaping the future of the Middle East.
In the meantime, the United States and others should pursue a two-track policy. One track would channel steps to improve the balance of power on the ground in Syria. This means doing more to help the Kurds and select Sunni tribes, as well as continuing to attack the Islamic State from the air.
Relatively safe enclaves should emerge from this effort. A Syria of enclaves or cantons may be the best possible outcome for now and the foreseeable future. Neither the US nor anyone else has a vital national interest in restoring a Syrian government that controls all of the country’s territory; what is essential is to roll back the Islamic State and similar groups.
The second track is a political process in which the US and other governments remain open to Russian (and even Iranian) participation. The goal would be to ease Assad out of power and establish a successor government that, at a minimum, enjoyed the support of his Alawite base and, ideally, some Sunnis.
Such a process might well confer prestige on Putin. That would be a price worth paying if it contributed to a dynamic that over time reduced both the suffering of the Syrian people and the danger posed by the Islamic State.