Opinion writer

The boots are on the ground in Syria. Welcome to the next round of our endless war in the Middle East.

Here’s what NBC News is reporting this morning:

The White House will announce Friday that a small number of U.S. special operations forces will be sent into Syria, according to a senior U.S. official.

The senior U.S. official said that the forces will be stationed in northern Syria and working alongside groups with a proven track record of fighting ISIS. The move will be described as a “shift” but not a “change” in U.S. strategy against ISIS, the official added.

That could include Kurdish force and allied groups who have come together under the umbrella of the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.

Obama and his administration have come under mounting pressure amid signs the anti-ISIS coalition has stalled or at least failed to turn the tide against the militants — including the recent Pentagon decision to abandon a failed program to train and equip Syrian rebels.

Other reports put the “small number” of troops at less than 50, but the important thing is that we now have combat troops in Syria. Once you’ve crossed that line — something President Obama has tried to avoid — adding more and more troops is just an adjustment, and one barely worthy of a news article. It’s easy to see the number of troops there just going up over time, as the military says, “Well, we did operations A and B, and that went pretty well, so what we need now is the ability to do operations C, D, E, F, and G. We only need a few hundred more troops to get that done.” And we keep ratcheting up our involvement little by little.

So, will Republicans come out and praise President Obama for being “strong,” their one and only measure of foreign policy wisdom? Of course not. They’ll say it should have happened sooner, and that whatever level of military engagement Obama uses, it isn’t enough. “We should be more stronger!”, they’ll insist.

They almost have a point. If we use a limited number of special forces units, they can accomplish finite goals, like the raid on an Islamic State prison in Iraq last week in which 70 prisoners were freed and an American soldier died. But it seems far less likely if not impossible that they will be able to fundamentally transform the conflict in the way we might want.

The trouble is that the use of some dramatically larger number of American troops — thousands? tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? — might transform the conflict, but would also bring with it all kinds of complications and unintended consequences. We could embark on a full-scale invasion of Syria, and we would doubtless be able to remove Bashar al-Assad’s government just as we removed Saddam Hussein’s government. The hard part, as we know all too well, is what comes after.

What we confront in Syria and Iraq is simultaneously 1) a multi-layered civil war where we can barely locate the faction we want to boost, let alone have any confidence they might win; 2) the rise of a powerful and radical terrorist group; 3) a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia; 4) tense maneuvering between the U.S. and Russia; and 5) the worst refugee crisis in decades. Whatever you might think about the way forward, anyone who tells you there’s a simple solution to all that either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or is lying to you (or maybe to himself or herself).

That’s why all along, President Obama’s reaction to the situation in Syria and Iraq has been so careful and limited. The last thing he wanted was to be drawn back into another war with the potential to be just as bad for us and everyone else as George W. Bush’s Iraq War was. So instead, he’s been pulled in that direction one tiny step at a time.

But here’s the truth: the chances that Barack Obama will end this conflict in the 14 months remaining in his presidency are miniscule. He will almost certainly be handing things off to his successor, who might be Hillary Clinton, or Marco Rubio, or Donald Trump. Because they’re running for president, they’re naturally inclined to present themselves as having the answers to any problem; no presidential candidate says, “Honestly, this is complex and difficult to predict, so all we can do is try to make the best of an awful situation.” Instead, they’re going to tell you they know exactly what we ought to do, and just you wait until they’re president, because then this whole thing will be taken care of.

Here’s one way to look at it, a question that ought to be asked of those candidates and of the administration: What’s the positive outcome we’re working toward? Is it the replacement of Assad with a stable democratic government? Okay, then how likely is it that what we’re doing now, and what we might do next, gets us significantly closer to that goal, given all the dimensions of the situation?

I’ll admit that I have no idea what the answer to the last question is, but I suspect that even people who know a lot more about this subject than I do don’t have much of an idea either. So don’t be surprised if in around four years, when the next presidential election comes around, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what to do in Syria.