When an American president is left with a lousy situation and no good options, then there is still the necessity of figuring out how to best advance U.S. interests going forward. (The specter of foreign fighters, the stream of refugees into Europe, and the strategic consequences of long-term control of the Middle East all underscore that we actually do have long-term interests and the “it’s not our problem argument” is just naive and shortsighted.) “It’s too hard” and “I don’t want to play” are not acceptable answers because what they produce is precisely what we have gotten: adversaries seizing the initiative and setting in motion a potential permanent redistribution of power and influence in a strategically important region of the world. (By the way, this will soon include Afghanistan, another place the U.S. plan for getting the heck out of Dodge has floundered. Iran is already seeking greater influence in that country as stumbling and political infighting in Kabul and the rise of IS have raised the specter of growing instability in that battered land.)
By the way, none of this means that it will be easy for the Russian-Iranian team to defeat extremists. Nor do I think that is their primary objective at the moment. What they seek to do is gain the kind of foothold that will guarantee them critical leverage in any political settlement to come in Syria. They will either be able to keep Assad in place or, alternatively, ensure him leadership for a transition period and then have the ability to select or veto his successor. This will guarantee both of them what they have wanted most all along — continued influence in Damascus. That is what both their regional strategies require, and because the United States, Europe, the Sunnis, and even the Israelis would all be perfectly happy with that in exchange for putting a lid on IS and stemming refugee flows, it seems likely that the Russian-Iranian gambit will work. They will get what they want, and the world, including Obama, will declare it a victory.