It’s been three weeks of watching Vladimir Putin begin to make his mark on the situation in Syria. Although it’s still early days, we can already see hints of how his moves are complicating U.S. calculations, changing the force balance in Syria and dividing the region. Syria holds grave risks for anyone who touches it, but Putin’s situation does not yet feel like the “quagmire” U.S. officials have asserted he is heading into.

To be sure, outsiders like Putin can always get sucked into civil wars, but for now he is deploying small numbers — several thousand military personnel and several dozen combat aircraft and other weaponry — which he can easily withdraw, if need be. Putin is projecting the image of a realist who knows how to use power. His argument is simple: A weaker Assad regime would leave little standing in the way of an Islamic State takeover. So we have watched him maneuver to give Assad some breathing space; Putin’s first moves have been to alleviate pressure on Syria, bombing mostly the regime’s non-IS opponents, and coordinating with Iran, which is carrying the burden of ground combat support for Assad. MORE