09/19/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Is Putin Trying to Draw Us In on Syria?

Thought experiment of the day: is it possible the Kremlin is trying to draw the U.S. into a lengthier involvement in the Syrian mess?

The question stems from the bizarre events of the past week and a half. Ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared to throw President Obama a lifeline just as his proposal for intervention in Syria seemed headed for rejection in the House, many have been wondering: What's Russia's endgame?

Some observers have suggested that the threat of U.S. force pushed Putin to cut a deal. That would make sense if Congress had been on board with Obama's request, but it rings hollow given that the House was about to thwart U.S. military action on its own. (Yes, Obama could have struck over Congress's explicit rejection, but it seems unlikely he would have risked the censure and possible impeachment that could have accompanied it.) Unless Putin was magnanimously offering our president a way to save face -- and few observers say magnanimity is Putin's standout quality -- the sequencing doesn't add up.

Others have suggested the Russian president and former KGB colonel was looking to earn greater respect on the international stage. That, too, is unpersuasive -- at least as a full explanation. If Putin really wants a place of honor in the international community, he has picked a strange time to show it. Where was that desire for legitimacy as Russia was passing viciously homophobic legislation this summer? Where is it as he repeatedly denies that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, even as he moves to negotiate the handover of the regime's stockpiles? Where was it these past two years as he watched Syria devolve into a bloodbath, and yet, despite being Assad's strongest patron, not once nudged the murderous regime toward the negotiating table? These are not the stances of a person steered by a desire for worldwide acclamation.

Is it possible, on the other hand, that Putin is less opposed to U.S. involvement than he lets on? Consider the complexities of U.S. engagement.

There are, it bears noting, many moral arguments for the U.S. launching military action against the Assad regime in Syria -- stepping up to be, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once put it in the context of the Bosnia crisis, "the indispensable nation."

But there are also -- painful as it is for many of us to say -- many practical arguments for restricting our participation to diplomacy, sanctions, and support for what remains of the moderate wing of the rebels. These arguments range from the danger of getting drawn into a lengthy, costly quagmire (a la Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) to the possibility of an escalation in a powder-keg region that serves nobody's long-term interests, least of all those of our most important regional ally, Israel.

These -- and many other concerns -- are why roughly 70 percent of Americans in recent polling believe the intervention has limited upside for America. And why these Americans' elected designates in the House of Representatives -- a group rarely noted for its moral grandeur -- were ready to scuttle approval for a strike.

So why -- as the White House appeared headed for a defeat on Capitol Hill that itself would have likely forestalled military action -- did the Kremlin jump in with such a rosy exit strategy? Why not just allow the vote to fail? (Or, even if it had somehow succeeded by the narrowest of margins, rush in with the chemical weapons ploy then and sow more confusion?)

If we reject generosity as an explanation, we have to consider the fact that keeping the U.S. bogged down in yet another Middle Eastern imbroglio isn't so bad from Putin's perspective. Sure, we can hit Assad with plenty of firepower, and make him hurt. But it also keeps our resources tied to what looks increasingly like a zero-sum fight, preventing us from pivoting to other global priorities. It ensures that the albatross of whatever ultimately comes of Syria will partly hang around our necks. And it keeps the West tethered to an issue where it has increasingly looked off-balance and uncoordinated. Realpolitik like that is far from unprecedented: the U.S. did, after all, play a role in baiting the Soviets into their own messy 10-year conflict in Afghanistan in the '80s, which ultimately helped bankrupt the USSR.

How does the chemical weapons curveball risk getting us drawn into a protracted Syrian morass?

The biggest risk is that we have now, in effect, drawn an even firmer red line than Obama's much-criticized 2012 comment, committing ourselves to a handover process that seems murky and optimistic at best.

If the force resolution had failed in Congress last week, the president could have -- embarrassingly, but reasonably -- acceded to the wishes of Congress, declining to join a third war in the Middle East. Now, if we believe Assad has not complied with the terms of the handover agreement negotiated with the Russians, the pressure will be that much higher to act. As Secretary Kerry affirmed in Paris on Monday, the U.S. and its allies "will not tolerate avoidance or anything less than full compliance."

Will the Syrians stick to the timeline and the Russians co-monitor it in good faith? There is oceanfront property in Arizona to be sold to those who think either is a surefire yes. The Russians haven't even admitted Assad has used chemical weapons in the first place. What happens when they claim he's handed them over and we disagree? Ryan Lizza wrote a sobering piece last week comparing the process we're setting up to the "cat and mouse" game that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- a frightening echo.

There remains, of course, the possibility that Putin simply saw an opening to guarantee space for Assad to crush the rebels and bought it for a low price. Why he would pay anything when it appeared he might be about to get the same Western inaction for free remains unclear. But it is possible Obama's negotiating at the G-20 in St. Petersburg was much stronger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, leaving the Kremlin worried that the U.S. was about to deal Assad a harsh blow.

On the other hand, it is also possible that Putin saw Obama on the ropes and capitalized on an opportunity to keep U.S. resources focused on -- and invested in -- Syria for a much longer haul. "All warfare," as Sun-Tzu's Art of War teaches, "is based on deception... hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."

Putin is, to many observers, an unreconstructed Cold Warrior. I'd beware of ex-KGB officers bearing gifts.