Will the US and Russia partition Syria?

Israeli security experts leaked late last month that the Obama administration and Russia are currently engaging in discussions aimed at partitioning Syria. These discussions, the source suggested, are the real reason the Syrian civil war recently intensified. Syrian rebels are struggling to grab as much ground as possible before a U.N.-imposed cease-fire.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the plan, Syrian President Bashar Assad would keep control of the areas surrounding Damascus, access to the Golan Heights, and the coastal mountain regions that surround the port of Tardus, home to Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean. The Syrian rebels would hold the territories they have captured in northern and southern Syria. And the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — well, the two former Cold War rivals aren't quite sure what to do about the vast swathe of land ISIS has captured in the north.

Syrian rebels have achieved remarkable territorial gains recently, capturing the city of Idlib along the Turkish border as well as much of the surrounding province, and they now peer down into Assad's coastal stronghold. The rebels also grabbed the Nasib border crossing between Syria and Jordan. For the first time since the civil war erupted, the rebels are effectively cooperating and coordinating their activities.

And many analysts believe this is due to the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar's support of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood soured its relationship with Saudi Arabia in the past. However, threatened by Iran's support of Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has drawn closer to other Sunni states, including Qatar and its good friend, Turkey.

Assad's Alawite regime and the Hezbollah are Shiite, as are the Houthi militants in Yemen and many Iraqi militias. The ousting of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi by the Iranian-backed Houthi prompted Saudi Arabia to form a coalition of Sunni states. The coalition has led airstrikes in Yemen in an attempt to reinstate Hadi and restore Sunni rule — at least along Yemen's border with the kingdom. The air campaign has opened the floodgates to a potential regional war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The Sunni Syria rebels consist of a hodgepodge of militant Islamic militias and the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is a collection of weaker, moderate militias, which the U.S. has hesitated to provide with arms and money for fear that these would wind up in the hands of Islamic militias. And indeed, Syria's al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front recently showed off a large cache of U.S. weapons that it had seized, including the anti-tank BGM-71 TOW missiles.

The Syrian rebel group that just captured Idlib and much of the surrounding province dubs itself the Army of Conquest and is made up of the al-Nusra Front, the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and five smaller groups. The Saudis have agreed to go along with Qatar and Turkey support for these rebels, and in exchange, the al-Nusra Front and its allies have toned down their revolutionary Islamic rhetoric.

And the upshot is: the United States and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the Gulf states and much of the Sunni world are now sitting on the opposite side of the Syria table.

The Obama administration sat the U.S. down at that table — not just when it began engaging Russia in discussions about how to partition Syria (and so stop the rebel advance), but when it decided not to oppose the U.N. decision to invite Iran to the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura explained the nature of Geneva talks: "This is a series of consultations, one to one, between myself, my team, and each delegation from each country, but also [between my team and] each delegation from the Syrian environment, all of them."

Now by "all of them," Mistura did not mean ISIS in Syria. Nobody wants them in Geneva. Nor did he mean the al-Nusra Front, which is — after all — Syria's al Qaeda affiliate and completely unwelcome at the U.N. headquarters as well.

No, by "all of them," Mistura meant Iran.

In previous negotiations, the U.N. withdrew its invitation to Iran upon the request of the U.S.. Not so, this time around.

And this is quite a gift for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Busy fighting ISIS in Iraq and supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran has diverted its attention and support from an increasingly isolated Alawite regime in Syria. The partition plan and the U.N. invite present Iran with a golden opportunity. Not only will Iran be welcomed into the community of nations — before it has destroyed a single centrifuge — but if a partition plan emerges, it will also happily hand over the responsibility of preserving its two proxies in the Fertile Crescent, Assad's Syria and the Hezbollah, to the United Nations.

It is unclear what the Obama administration expects to gain by sitting across from U.S. allies at the Syrian table. Is President Obama seeking further rapprochement with Iran, in the hopes that Iran will soften its position in the nuclear negotiations in Lausanne? Is Obama seeking better cooperation with the totalitarian state that is becoming Russia, in the hopes that Russia will stand firm with the West until Iran complies with demands for transparent inspection of its nuclear program? Or perhaps Obama believes that partitioning Syria will save lives?

It is clear what Russia stands to gain from a partition. When Moammar Gadhafi fell in Libya, the Russian naval port at Tardus became the former superpower's last stronghold in the region. In fact, this month, Russia and China will conduct the first joint military exercises in the Mediterranean.

For their part, Saudi Arabia, its Sunni allies and the Syrian rebels are not interested in a partition plan that would give much of Syria to an Iranian proxy — at least not while Iran is expanding into Iraq and Yemen and negotiating its way, in their view, toward nuclear threshold.

Friedman is an American-Israeli writer and editor in the fields of political science, history and information technology.