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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Barack Obama watches as Vladimir Putin creates a Syrian quagmire

In this photo made from footage taken from

In this photo made from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry's official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches cruise missiles in the Caspian Sea. Credit: AP

When President Barack Obama told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft that Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria was not a challenge to American leadership but a sign of weakness, his comments were widely derided by conservatives as brazenly self-serving and out of touch with reality.

To Obama's critics, he is making a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious fact that he has been outmaneuvered and humiliated by Putin. But one can find many faults with Obama's foreign policy and yet see a valid point in his assessment of Putin's Syrian adventure.

There is no question Putin took advantage of a bad situation in Syria to assume the role of the take-charge guy who rides in and cleans up everyone else's mess. He wants to embarrass the United States and reopen the possibility of partnership, show that Russia is back as a major player in global politics, and prop up his pal Bashar Assad. But posturing is not the same as results.

Putin's image is more troublemaker than new sheriff in town. It was clear from the start that Russian forces were not fighting the Islamic State group that served as the Kremlin's pretext for intervention, but other anti-Assad forces -- including ones backed by the United States. Whether those "moderate" rebels are good guys, they are certainly not the menace that has made the region a global danger zone. In Aleppo, according to some reports, Russia's airstrikes actually helped the Islamic State gain ground. Russian military jets over Syria also create new potential for dangerous conflict.

Russian independent journalist Alexander Golts, an expert on military and security issues, argues in the English-language newspaper Moscow Times that Russia has virtually no chance of achieving even its short-term goals without stepping up airstrikes, greatly expanding support operations and probably committing ground troops. Casualties would be inevitable. Golts concludes that "Russia has become drawn into a useless war . . . with no definite military objectives," a war likely to be unwinnable and protracted.

Such a war is likely to have unintended consequences, including tensions between Russia and other countries in the region (Turkey and Saudi Arabia have already made their displeasure clear) and the Islamic State taking the war to Russia's territory.

The war hasn't helped end Russia's and Putin's international isolation. In Syria, billboards show Putin side by side with Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. This is not great publicity.

Similar points have been made by others: leading independent Russian journalist and radio commentator Yulia Latynina, who believes Putin is being used as a "patsy" for Assad, and opposition politician and former parliament member Grigory Yavlinsky, who writes in the weekly Novaya Gazeta that Putin's only real goal is to stay in power by any means.

Are Russia's liberal dissenters engaging in wishful thinking when they argue that Putin is losing? To some extent, perhaps. But many American conservatives, in turn, are so invested in seeing Obama as a loser and a weakling that they are inclined to exaggerate Putin's triumphs and strength. Putin is facing a tanking economy and a failed war in eastern Ukraine; one reason for his action in Syria has been to create new propaganda theater to distract the masses at home.

Of course, Obama's incoherent, more bark-than-bite Syria policy is nothing to be proud of. But when Obama points out that Putin's version of "leadership" consists of "running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in, in order to prop up your only ally," it's hard to disagree.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.