The United States and Russia are on slippery slopes with increasing their military involvement in the Syrian civil war and pursuit of Islamic State fighters in reaction to separate terrorist provocations.
Despite last week's horrific San Bernardino shootings, the stakes at home for Russian President Vladimir Putin are much higher than they are for President Barack Obama, and the prospects for Moscow eventually getting more deeply involved in the ground war fighting are therefore much greater.
"The militants in Syria pose a particularly high threat for Russia" because "many of them are citizens of Russia" or from former Soviet republics, Putin told his Federal Assembly on Thursday in what was his equivalent of the annual State of the Union address in the United States.
"We know what aggression of international terrorism is," Putin said, referring back to attacks and suicide bombings in the mid-1990s that involved Islamic jihadists and "took thousands of lives. . . . This evil is still out there."
In October, Putin put the number of Russian and former Soviet republic fighters who had gone to Syria to join the Islamic State at "an estimated 5,000 to 7,000." He added at that time, "We certainly cannot allow them to use the experience they are getting in Syria on home soil."
During his Nov. 26 joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande, Putin returned to the direct threat to Russia. He described Russian nationals in Syria as "international terrorists" and justified Russian military actions in northwest Syria as "working in this quadrant to prevent the possible return of the people to Russia's territory to commit crimes."
Putin further explained: "This is why it has been decided to launch a military operation there based on an official request from the legitimate Syrian authorities. Our military personnel are fighting in Syria for Russia, for the security of Russian citizens."
Russia has faced internal threats before from Islamic radicals who are part of the overall Muslim population that make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of Russia's 140 million population.
In response to Russia initiating bombings in Syria in September, the Islamic State issued a series of videos threatening a response, including one Nov. 12 that said there would be attacks in Russia "very soon."
On Nov. 17, the Islamic State took credit for the bomb that blew up the Russian airliner Oct. 31 over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. That forced Putin, who had earlier withheld judgment on the cause of the crash that killed 244 Russian men, women and children, to respond by saying, "We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them." At the same time he ordered missile attacks in Syria and sent more Russian aircraft and protective ground troops there. Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB, announced a $50 million reward for help in discovering the perpetrators.
The Islamic State has continued its anti-Russian campaign.
On Wednesday, one day before Putin's state of the nation speech, the Islamic State released a video that allegedly showed the beheading of a Russian from Chechnya who, on the video, claimed to have spied on behalf of Russian intelligence in Syria. The bearded individual, who said he was 23-year-old Magomed Khasiev from Gronzy, claimed he worked undercover in Syria and Iraq for the FSB collecting information on Russians who had joined to fight for the Islamic State.
Washington and Moscow have a mutual interest in destroying the Islamic State leadership and overcoming their appeal to radical jihadists who may attack Russian or U.S. citizens anywhere in the world. Both have responded to recent Islamic State terrorist acts outside Syria by sending in modest special forces units.
Iran's Fars New Agency reported on Sunday that more than 60 Russian Marines had arrived in Syria's Homs Province to advise and assist Syrian Army units fighting near Palmyra. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last Tuesday announced a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" would be going after Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria.
These minimal force increases and stepping up of Russian and U.S. coalition air attacks do not solve the basic internal problems in Syria and Iraq that feed the Islamic State's attraction.
"There is no meaningful official reporting on the progress in creating effective Iraqi government forces, the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi Army to date, the success or failure of efforts to create Arab Sunni forces, and the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi Kurdish forces," wrote Anthony Cordesman, the strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an essay released on Thursday. He added that there also was no "credible plan or mix of U.S., Arab, and Turkish efforts or . . . a meaningful rebel force in Syria to deal with ISIS - or the Assad forces."
That's been the dilemma for the administration the past three years, developing local forces in Iraq and Syria. As Obama put it on Sunday, "The strategy that we are using now - airstrikes, Special Forces and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country - that is how we'll achieve a more sustainable victory."
The question is whether Russia and/or the United States can avoid what Obama described as being "drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria." He correctly said the Islamic State leaders "know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. . . . But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources and using our presence to draw new recruits."