What Kristof, Cohen, Wright, and their colleagues apparently can’t see, even at this late date, is that Obama’s inaction in Syria is not simply part of the hangover from the failed American war in Iraq, or of the president’s personal psychology. There is something entirely practical at stake here, too—namely, the Iran deal. The explanation is, in fact, a simple one: U.S. intervention in Syria against Assad would have made the Iran deal impossible. In fact, U.S. support for Iran’s continuing presence in Syria was a precondition of the deal, according to no less an authority than the president himself. In a December press conference, Obama spoke of “respecting” Iranian “equities” in Syria—which, translated into plain English, means leaving Assad alone in order to keep the Iranians happy.
The connection between Syria and the Iran deal was not particularly hard to spot for anyone in the administration. “Iranian officials told me that even had the diplomats doing the negotiations wanted to stay in talks, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have pulled the plug,” says Jay Solomon, author of the just published Iran Wars, an account of U.S.-Iran relations. “Obama sent a letter to Khamenei saying he wouldn’t target Assad,” Solomon continues. “And Pentagon officials told us they were concerned that operations in Syria risked undermining the nuclear negotiations.”One is reminded of a Mark Steyn line referencing Obama's oft-vaunted but much-discounted Islamic provenance: "If he were working for the other side, what exactly would he be doing differently?"