Falling-Out Between Russia, Iran and Syria Stymies Aleppo Offensive
Tensions have heightened between Damascus and Tehran over the last few days over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s demand that Iran send more forces to Aleppo in order to defeat the rebels in the key northwestern city.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and Iranian sources report that Iran’s political and military hierarchies oppose the demand, mainly because of the heavy losses that Iranian forces are suffering in the battles around the city.
Instead of additional troops, Tehran has decided to dispatch Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods Brigades and of Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. Since arriving in the Aleppo area on May 5, he has been making a series of visits to raise the morale among Iranian standing army and Revolutionary Guard troops, pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Hizballah units. He has not visited Syrian units on the front due to the tension between Tehran and Damascus.
Soleimani was given three missions:
1. Raise the morale among the Iranian and pro-Iranian soldiers on the ground. While suffering a daily average of eight to ten killed and dozens wounded, the only assistance they are receiving on the battlefield is from Hizballah, as the Syrian military is not participating in the Aleppo campaign. This leads the troops to question their alliance and reasons for fighting others' battles.
2. Try to reach understandings with Syrian commanders on the ground, despite their open hostility to Iranian officers during the last few days.
3. Try to find new common ground between Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces in an attempt to prevent a rupture in the various fronts around Syria.
Soleimani is aware of the huge gap between the positions of Tehran and Damascus regarding the war.
President Assad does not make any clear statements to the Iranians, but there is no doubt that he is not interested in deploying large forces from the Syrian army to Aleppo. He fears that the Russians and the Iranians will intentionally widen the war in the north in order to remove as many Syrian forces as possible from Damascus. He believes that such a situation would leave him and his regime exposed to Russian and Iranian steps resulting in him relinquishing power.
Assad’s orders to the Syrian military, except the air force, to pull out of the battles around Aleppo were intended to minimize the fighting, while Soleimani’s orders from Tehran were exactly the opposite.
Assad wants most of the Syrian army to remain intact in the areas of Damascus and Latakia in order to defend his regime, even at the price of leaving Aleppo in rebel hands.
Our sources report that these Syrian and Iranian military maneuvers related to Aleppo sparked anger in Moscow and resulted in the decision to halt Russian air strikes in northern Syria towards the end of last week.
Russia’s defense minister, Gen. Sergei Shoigu, reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that neither the Syrian forces nor the Iranian forces took advantage of the Russian air raids on the rebels since the beginning of the month, and did not send forces to take control of areas that were bombed. He said the Syrian and Iranian forces ignored the opportunity allowed by the bombings to advance in Idlib province and capture parts of it. They could have cut off Aleppo from Idlib as well as sever the rebels’ supply routes from Turkey.
Amid this situation in which the three main allies, namely the Russians, Iranians and Syrians, are no longer on the same page, there seems to be no chance that the offensive will result in the capture of Syria’s largest city.