The cease-fire in Syria has more or less evaporated, and Syrian loyalists, heavily reinforced by Iran, are closing in on the contested city of Aleppo. Damascus, working to bring that strategic piece of Syria back under its control before peace talks turn more serious, is painting the offensive as a joint Syrian-Russian operation. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi announced to a visiting delegation of Russian lawmakers that Syria, together with Russia, was preparing for an operation to "liberate Aleppo and to block all illegal armed groups which have not joined or have broken the cease-fire deal."
But Russia is not showing nearly as much enthusiasm for the offensive as Syria had hoped it would. Sergei Rudskoi, the head of the Russian general staff's main operations command, clarified on Monday that a number of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters (who are not part of the cease-fire) were preparing an offensive to cut Aleppo city off from Damascus and that Russian air operations were focused on preventing that from happening. Rudskoi bluntly contradicted al-Halqi, saying, "No storming of the city of Aleppo is planned," and reiterated that Russia will not target armed Syrian groups that have signed on to the cease-fire.
Of course, Russia often says one thing in public but does another. Despite claims it is withdrawing from Syria, Russia maintains significant air assets and artillery units there and can quickly and effectively ramp its involvement back up at any point. But there is an obvious gap between the Syrian and Russian game plans for the country. Russian officials have privately called al-Halqi's remarks on a joint operation "outlandish." Moscow is not looking to grant the government a decisive victory. Instead, Syria is just part of the negotiations for Russia. Because of the involvement of the Islamic State and the migrant crisis — two issues that have the West's full attention — Syria's civil war is the perfect bargaining chip in negotiations on matters such as economic sanctions, the conflict in Ukraine and NATO's buildup in Europe. Rather than help the Syrian regime retake Aleppo city, Russia would rather try to enlist the United States in a joint operation to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa in the hopes that a cooperative effort could lead to a broader U.S.-Russian dialogue.
The Syrian government is indebted to Russia in many ways. Russia has taken the lead on the diplomatic front, supporting the Syrian government in the U.N. Security Council and acting as the primary coordinator on its behalf in the International Syria Support Group. Russia has provided crucial air support for Syrian loyalist forces, significantly aiding in degrading rebel defenses and bolstering loyalist offensives. Russia continues to provide large quantities of weaponry to the loyalist forces, helping ameliorate the significant loss of equipment and weapons by Syrian government forces. And Russia's presence discourages direct foreign intervention in Syria, especially by Turkey. Russia's significant support for the Syrian government is what gives Moscow the ability to push Damascus to the negotiating table in the first place.
But Russia is not Syria's puppet master, either. The Russian aid is notable and has been heavily covered by international media and commentary. But it has also obfuscated the equally if not even more important role that Iran has played in reversing loyalist fortunes on the battlefield.
Iran has provided army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops, trained National Defense Forces militias, directed Hezbollah to provide more support, and brought a coalition of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias to Syria under the direct command of the IRGC. The additional manpower is the most important contribution to the Syrian government's increasingly undermanned forces. Iran has provided vital financial support to Syria's sinking economy and has continued to fund the Syrian government's war machine. As a result, Iran has at least as much leverage in Damascus as Russia does.
Moscow and Tehran may see eye to eye on many aspects of the conflict, but there are differences: Russia is less invested in Syria proper and is more inclined to make trade-offs; Tehran sees Syria as a crucial bastion in its support for Hezbollah and an important anchor for Shiite influence in the Levant. Russia is careful to maintain a viable exit strategy, while Iran is committed to Syria for the long haul.
The Aleppo offensive is highlighting some very real cracks in the trilateral coalition formed by Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Russia is re-establishing links with NATO and trying to bargain with the Europeans and Americans over sanctions and limits to Western support for Ukraine. Moscow needs to put on a show of cooperation in Syria if it hopes to gain ground in these parallel negotiations. But if Iran is backing a Syrian offensive to try to retake Aleppo city, then the Russian-led cease-fire efforts will stumble yet again, migrant flows out of Aleppo will spike, Europe's already tenuous migrant deal with Turkey could break down, and Turkey could be pushed to move into northern Syria to set up a safe zone to contain those refugees. Should that chain reaction come to pass, Russia could see its diplomatic position undermined at a crucial point in its negotiations with the West.