If there is anything positive to be taken from the Syrian situation, it is that U.N. sanctions on Iran have so devalued that country's currency that Tehran may not be able to afford to sustain both itself and Assad for long. Given that choice, there is no doubt the mullahs will sacrifice Assad. How long it will be before they get to that point is difficult to say. There are factors pulling in both directions. Reports have surfaced of fissures between Ayatollah Khamenei and his head of intelligence over the cost of supporting Assad. These tensions have likely only grown as the rial has plummeted in value and as Iran has acknowledged sending elite forces to aid Assad. More intense sanctions against Iran might prove to be the most effective tool the West has to bring down the Assad regime. But it is far from obvious that doing so will improve the situation or serve the interests of any NATO member except for Turkey.
The beginning of the Syrian rebellion provided an opportunity for Western interests to step in and take an active role in organizing the more secular elements among the rebels. That, however, did not serve the electoral interests of Obama's core constituents or voters in other Western countries facing elections. Hence, with their own survival being foremost in their calculations, Western leaders did little to bolster pro-Western insurgents or to topple Assad by offering him a soft landing. While the West pondered its next steps, others, as must always be expected, saw an opportunity to organize the rebellion around their own agenda.
The majority of Syrians may not be religious fundamentalists. But as in Egypt's revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran, the organized few are, and we should expect power to devolve to them when the Assad regime is brought down. As emphasized in our book, The Dictator's Handbook, the short-term political interests of politicians always trump the longer-term "national interest." And so it has been with Syria. A future American president will have to learn to deal with a possibly even worse Syrian regime. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was prepared to acknowledge that waiting and doing nothing would saddle future leaders with an almost assured headache. After all, there were precious few votes among Democrats or Republicans for action today that would forestall disaster tomorrow.