What President Obama is thinking

U.S. troops putting boots on the ground in Syria
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Story highlights

  • Aaron David Miller: Obama is taking small steps to try to help dire situation in Syria but has ruled out any major commitment of forces
  • President wants to avoid mission creep or a no-fly zone that might draw U.S. in deeper, and is not into nation-building, Miller writes

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Are you concerned, as many Republicans are, that President Obama's decision to deploy several dozen special forces to Syria is too little too late?

Are you worried, as many Democrats are, that Obama's decision is too risky and contradicts his previous pledge not to put U.S. boots on the ground?
Don't fret. The President has a strategy on Syria.
    Aaron David Miller
    Remember those cartoons where the characters' real thoughts were contained in a bubble over their heads? Well, here's what the President's bubble conversation on Syria would sound like, if it weren't too politically incorrect and inconvenient to admit it:
    One, Syria is a mess and nothing I've done is working to fix it. Some of this is my fault. I let a red line turn pink; called for Bashar al-Assad's departure too many times with no leverage to force him out; committed the U.S. to a training program for Syrian rebels that misjudged how many Sunnis were prepared to fight ISIS, because their real focus is getting rid of Assad.
    I didn't take the rise of ISIS seriously enough and used a bad sports metaphor to characterize the group. I won't admit it publicly, but I probably should have worked harder to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis so that some U.S. troops would have remained in the country. Whether it would have stabilized matters in Iraq is arguable. But it would have gotten the Republicans off my back.
    Two, a couple of things have happened that have made my Syrian policy look even worse.
    First, the refugee crisis isn't just an Arab problem in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey anymore -- it's now become a European problem, with thousands of Arab migrants and refugees, victims of war and conflict, creating what may well be a generational humanitarian catastrophe.
    And second, Vladimir Putin did something I didn't see coming. He projected a fair amount of Russian military power into Syria to prop up the Assad regime. Together with Iran, Russia is now guaranteed a major role in shaping the outcome in Syria. This might actually help stabilize matters, if the Russians are prepared to use their leverage on Assad. But for now, I look weak and like I'm playing catch-up.
    Former official: We took 'Assad must go' as a directive
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    Three, make no mistake. I have no intention of allowing mission creep that results in deploying tens of thousands of ground forces in Syria. My secretary of state made that clear the other day.
    Nor am I interested in setting up a no-fly zone that I might have to protect and that would only draw me in deeper. My mission is to get the U.S. out of unwinnable wars, not into new ones. I'll fight ISIS and do counterterrorism. But I'm not nation building. There will be no new Iraqs and Afghanistans on my watch. The public doesn't want that. And neither does Congress.
    Fourth, I have a year-plus left on the clock before I leave the White House. I need to do something different. I really don't want to leave office with Syria a worse disaster than it is now.
    The mess in Syria really isn't my fault. But I will be blamed for it nonetheless. Even my former secretary of state is campaigning on a more muscular policy than mine and is calling for a no-fly zone. And most of her Republican opponents are doing the same.
    Putting very limited special operations forces in Syria -- for now -- won't change the battlefield balance. But we have had some success in supporting our local Kurdish allies against ISIS, and this will help shore them up, give our guys a firsthand feel for the situation on the ground, and signal the Russians that I'm prepared to do more.
    Five, I really don't have a comprehensive Syrian strategy to ease Assad out and defeat ISIS. That would require the kind of commitment I'm just not prepared to make.
    And so, I'll continue with my Goldilocks policy of steps that are not too hot and not too cold. I'll push on two tracks: giving John Kerry authority to engage the Russians and Iran to see if he can't create some managed transition that would tamp down the violence, and maybe start a political process that over time would lead what's left of Syria to a better place.
    In the meantime, I'll continue to press ISIS by supporting local forces, using airstrikes, and yes, deploying special operations forces too.
    More than likely, the Syrian mess will be left to my successor. I can't wait to see if he or she will be able to do a better job with it.