When Hafez al-Assad, the former dictator of Syria, died and his son Bashar al-Assad succeeded him, observers doubted he would last. Bashar was an ophthalmologist in London. His father, the leader of a minority religious group and a political movement that time had passed by, kept power by being a paragon of ruthlessness, intrigue and, when necessary, mass murder. What did an eye doctor know about such things?
Then the Arab Spring began. The elder Assad had evidently taught his heir his formula for holding power in a country with many types of Islam, and many political and ethnic factions.
Mr. Assad has divided and conquered, while his opponents have divided themselves. The various oppositions couldn't unite, and Mr. Assad's most high-profile opponent – ISIS – was partly fostered by the regime itself, to present Syrians and the world with a false choice between the old dictator and a new apocalypse.
In 1982, the city of Hama was besieged and destroyed by the elder Assad; thousands were killed. A generation later, the son has topped the father with the destruction of Aleppo, once Syria's largest city, stone by stone, and hunk by hunk of concrete. Thousands have died.
Washington could have removed Mr. Assad from power years ago, but it had no stomach for another Middle East war, however well intentioned. Recent history explains why. The overthrow of the Taliban was justified, yet 15 years later Afghanistan is largely a story of failure and disappointment. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to civil war, ethnic cleansing and a new Iraq that is more pro-Iranian than pro-Western. The West helped oust Gaddafi, and with good reason, but Libya is now a failed state.
The Obama administration hoped its support for Syria's moderate opposition would pressure the regime into negotiations for a coalition government replacing Mr. Assad. That isn't going to happen any time soon. The Syrian dictator has not yet won, but thanks to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, he is steadily, bloodily winning.