So why are the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu unenthusiastic about even indirect military intervention to topple Assad? In part, it's because of worry about what would follow the dictator. In Obama's case, the presidential campaign, and his claim that "the tide of war is receding," are big factors.
But the calculus about Syria and Iran is also more complicated than it looks at first. The two are not just linked by their alliance, but also by the fact that America and its allies have defined a distinct and urgent goal for each. In Syria, it is to remove Assad and replace him with a democracy; in Iran, it is to prevent a nuclear weapon. It turns out that the steps that might achieve success in one theater only complicate strategy in the other.
Take military action. Syria interventionists (such as myself) have been arguing that the United States and allies like Turkey should join in setting up safe zones for civilians and anti-Assad forces along Syria's borders, which would require air cover and maybe some (Turkish) troops. But if the United States gets involved in a military operation in Syria, would it still be feasible to carry out an air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? What if Israel were to launch one during a Syria operation?
The result could be an unmanageable mess. A senior Israeli official told me: "We are concentrated on Iran. Anything that can create a distraction from Iran is not for the best."
Obama's strategy, striking a diplomatic bargain to stop Iran's nuclear program, also narrows his options in Syria. A deal with Tehran will require the support of Russia, which is opposed to forcing out Assad, a longtime client. If Obama wants the support of Vladimir Putin on Iran, he may have to stick to Putin-approved measures on Syria. That leaves the administration at the mercy of Moscow.
At the root of this trouble are confused U.S. aims in the Middle East. Does Washington want to overthrow the brutal, hostile, and allied dictatorships of Assad and Iran's Ali Khamenei — or strike bargains that contain the threats? The answer is neither and both: The administration says it is seeking regime change in Syria, but in Iran, it has defined the goal as rapprochement with the mullahs.
If regime change in Syria is the goal, Security Council resolutions and six-point plans from Kofi Annan are doomed to fail. Only economic and military pressure will work.
A collapse, in turn, could undermine the Iranian regime with which Obama is seeking a bargain. So it's no wonder Tehran sought to add Syria to the topics for discussion at the last negotiations, or that Annan wants to include Iran in a new "contact group" to broker a settlement in Syria.
The Obama administration rejected both proposals — because they are at odds with Syrian regime change. This muddle may delight Vladimir Putin, but it's not likely to achieve much else.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post.