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Putin’s Partition Plan for Syria

By Hussein Ibish

OCT. 19, 2015

Taking advantage of the paralysis of American policy in Syria, Russia’s dramatic escalation of military activity in that country seeks to reorder the strategic landscape of the Middle East.

Few appear to grasp the full scope of what Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, is attempting. This is partly because, in theory, this should be beyond Russia’s capabilities. But Mr. Putin cannily senses an opportunity, at the very least, to restore Russia to the role in the Middle East that it lost in the 1970s.

Russia’s intervention anticipates a resolution of the Syrian conflict through de facto partition. The Reuters news agency reports that, months ago, Iran proposed the joint offensive, now underway, to save the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad from imminent collapse. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, is depicted poring over maps of Syria with Russian officials in the Kremlin.

Russian firepower is aimed at securing the larger, western part of the rump Syrian state that is still controlled by Mr. Assad — in particular the air and naval bases near Latakia and Tartus. And aside from forays into northern trouble spots like Aleppo, Iranian and Hezbollah forces will mostly concentrate on the lower half of this strip, which runs from the Lebanese border through Qalamoun, up to Damascus, and from there to the port cities and coastal heartland of the Alawites, the Syrian Shiite sect loyal to Mr. Assad.

For all of the talk of combating the Islamic State, Russia’s real aim is to push back rebel groups and secure this ministate. Given what Mr. Assad’s allies are willing to do to salvage this “Little Syria” — compared with the limited intervention being considered by Mr. Putin’s international antagonists — this is probably an achievable goal.

Such a partition of Syria would leave other parts of the country in the hands of nationalist and Islamist rebels, a Kurdish area in the north, perhaps some smaller enclaves and, most ominously, the “caliphate” of the Islamic State in the north and east. Despite Kremlin propaganda, the Islamic State is already among the biggest winners from the Russian intervention.

At the end of last week, for example, the group took advantage of Russian airstrikes, some 90 percent of which have reportedly targeted other rebel groups, and captured several villages near Aleppo. The militants also killed some of Iran’s most senior commanders in Syria, including Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani. These advances are realizing Mr. Assad’s goal of making the choice for both Syrians and the world at large appear to be between him and the jihadists.

Russia’s unspoken but unmistakable message is that Moscow is trying one— and perhaps the only— way of ending the conflict by means of a Lebanese-style segregation of Syria into zones controlled by rival militias. To Washington’s perennial concern in any Middle Eastern imbroglio, “Tell me how this ends,” Moscow responds: The Syrian conflict will be “resolved” on Russia’s terms, even if Mr. Assad proves dispensable to the Kremlin in the long run.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s desire to see the conflict end without actually doing anything itself means that, as Bloomberg View suggested recently, there is a group of senior American officials prepared to go along with the Russian plan. After all, America’s own policy in Syria has rapidly moved from tragedy to farce. The latest fiasco was the cancellation of the $500 million military training program for anti-Islamic State rebels that produced barely a handful of fighters on the ground.

So if Moscow has a policy, and Washington doesn’t, why not just support that?

Beyond the fact that it’s absurd to hope that Mr. Putin’s approach is likely to benefit American interests, giving way to Russia’s policy would, in effect, entail abandoning the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. And the militants cannot be effectively countered in Iraq alone. So what this final, ignominious capitulation would really mean is that not only would Mr. Assad (or some Russian-appointed successor) menace Syrians for the foreseeable future, but so too would the Islamic State.

No wonder Gen. John R. Allen, America’s envoy to the international coalition against the Islamic State, recently announced his resignation. Being in charge of a farce is bad enough; no one can accept being the front for a fraud.

Even worse, viewed through a broader regional framework, American acquiescence to this Russian initiative would ultimately mean an accommodation with a major reshaping of the strategic order in the Middle East. Moscow is clearly trying to accomplish the creation of a powerful alliance with Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, “Little Syria” and others. To secure this new compact, Russia is willing to risk not only confrontation with the West, but also its recently improved relations with other regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

There’s no good reason Washington should go along with any of this. Russia is manifestly less powerful militarily, economically and diplomatically than the United States. But it’s no longer a matter of capabilities; it’s become a matter of will. On paper, Russia is in no position to barge into the Middle East and throw its weight around. But after the interference in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the Syrian chemical weapons debacle, Mr. Putin correctly judged that nobody would stop him.

Mr. Putin is canny enough to know that he is already overstretched, faces potential quagmires and has core differences with putative allies like Iran. So, at any given moment, he’ll be ready to pocket his gains and do a deal with the Americans — from an already advantageous position.

The remaining question is: How far will he be allowed to go? At the moment, the astonishing answer appears to be: all the way.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a contributing opinion writer.