ALEPPO — In his smoke-filled office in western Aleppo, Tarif Attoura holds a copy of the draft agreement to let the rebels leave the eastern part of the city, under siege for three months. "It was the Russians who drew up the document in their Center for Reconciliation at the Khmeimim air base, near Latakia," says the humanitarian worker, who regularly crosses the frontline to go to the rebel-controlled area. The text was signed by the Syrian general Zayed Saleh and Sergey Ustinov, Russia's military chief of staff in Syria.
"Sorry, but I have to go to the Russian-Syrian coordination center immediately," Attoura says, before taking his leave. That was in late October, on the first day of a humanitarian pause that failed ultimately to bring the rebels out of this eastern part of Aleppo, which has been under very violent attack from the Syrian air force.
A Syrian official tells a similar story. "The Russians are doing all the work," he says. "They negotiate with the Turkish intelligence services, who pass on the information to the Saudis, so they can speak to the rebels in Aleppo, and then the Russians inform us."
If the Guardians of the Iranian Revolution and the Shia militia Hezbollah control the countryside around Aleppo, it's the Russians and their war planes who are defending Syria's second biggest city. And the stakes couldn't be higher. "Whoever wins in Aleppo will win the war," says a humanitarian worker.
In the city, the Russian military is discreet. We do see, however, their convoys between Ithriya and Khanasser before we reach Aleppo. Located in the middle of the desert, it's the most dangerous part of the road between Damascus and Aleppo. During the night, jihadists plant mines on the side of this secondary route opened up by the Iranians and protected by Shia Afghan fighters.
Calling the shots
One year after the beginning of the Russian military offensive that Vladimir Putin ordered to save Bashar al-Assad's regime, Russia exerts increasing control over Syrian authorities. "The Russians are imposing their representatives in the main decision channels, but it's not an easy task," says a foreign expert in Damascus on condition of anonymity.
The army and the intelligence services are their main targets. "After they had assessed a certain number of leaders, they managed to impose a few new ones, but others are still here," the expert says. The Russians' insistence on Assad led to the replacement of the leader of the Syrian Republican Guard, Gen. Badi al-Maali, by Talal Makhlouf in the spring.
In the galaxy of intelligence services, Moscow's man isn't Ali Mamlouk, the almighty head of the national security council, but Dib Zeitoun, the head of the Syrian General Security Directorate, who was sent last summer on a secret mission to Italy and later to Egypt. Even if they often meet with him, the Russians distrust Mamlouk, says a businessman close to the regime. "He's Assad's man, a very experienced, professional man who's less malleable," the source explains.
Critical at first regarding the Iranian method that consists in turning to a plethora of militias to compensate for the lack of Syrians ready to fight, the Russian strategists wanted to create a new army corps to absorb and professionalize the militias. After more than year of efforts, the Russians finally succeeded in restructuring an army that was in "very poor shape" when they arrived. The creation of a fifth corps, made up of tens of thousands of volunteers paid in dollars, was announced recently.
"The Russians wanted to work with the army only, but they couldn't," a senior official with the Syrian regime says. Now they too must turn to reserves. For instance the Liwa al-Quds group (also known as the "Jerusalem brigade"), which operates in the Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat, on the outskirts of Aleppo and which used to be financed and armed by Iran. Its men now are financially and logistically dependent on the Russians. "Even though the Russians are sometimes tough with us, they don't have a religious agenda, unlike Iran, and they're more professional," the official admits.
In his underground headquarters in central Aleppo, Ahmad, in charge of political security, writes down a few words in Russian, a recollection of his training with the ex-KGB, while one of his agents shows us pictures on a Facebook page created to get in touch with moles among the rebels in eastern Aleppo.
Eager to observe how the population was reacting to its military intervention, Moscow installed an Internet watch cell on its air base in Khmeimim, on the coast, at the heart of the Assad stronghold. "They're watching everything people say on social networks in the rebel-controlled areas," a Syrian military in contact with the Russians says. "Then they pass the results on to us so we can work hand-in-hand," he adds.
Russians and Iranians divided up Syria into two areas to control: the southwest for the Guardians of the Revolution and Hezbollah; and the northwest and Palmyra for the Kremlin's men, who are building a Russian military base next to the ancient city to be able to deploy a surveillance radar. How the territory is divided up can change, depending on the circumstances.
Syrian officials acknowledge that they have some points of contention with the Russians. "We want to retake all of Syria, while the Russians would be content with the useful part of the country," says a close advisor to Assad. For Moscow, the goal is to reconquer the main cities, the suburbs around it and the networks of oil and gas fields, so as to push what's left of the rebellion into the desert and the villages.
Cold realpolitik is dominating on all sides. "We have no alternative," the advisor to the Syrian president admits. Those around Assad are grateful to the Russians for saving them in the summer of 2015, but that doesn't stop him from being concerned. "We're not in control at the negotiating table," he adds when asked about a potential political transition. He says discussions are now at an impasse and fears that eventually, the Russian ally might abandon Assad.
Toward a fait accompli
The Syrian president is playing on the rivalries between his powerful allies. In the spring, the Russian services were forced to intervene to stop Hezbollah from building underground military infrastructures the Shia militia had started to dig in the south, near the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel. Eager to maintain good relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Moscow managed to talk its allies out of building a support base for a future conflict against the Israel Defense Forces.
Russians and Iranians were also at odds over Assad's personal guard, made up of Syrians and Iranians from the al-Mahdi unit. "At some point, we saw the Russians trying to sideline the Iranians, but it didn't work," a Damascus-based Arab diplomat says.
Whether it takes the form of a Russian mandate or a Russian-Iranian condominium, "Russia's domination is accepted, Assad has no leeway, he's at war," the diplomat says. "But though the Russians are able to honor the military side of their commitment, they won't be bringing much for the reconstruction of Syria. There's the rub."
These past few months, Moscow has been accelerating its plans, hoping to present U.S. President-elect Donald Trump with a fait accompli, before he takes over in Washington. The Russians, to spare their Kurdish allies, came up with a draft for a new Constitution which no longer refers to the "Syrian Arab Republic" but only to the "Syrian Republic." In Tartus, the Russian army is transforming its port installations into a "permanent naval base." And to defend Khmeimim, they deployed batteries of anti-aircraft S-300 missiles, on top of the S-400 already deployed there.
Beyond that, "Putin is trying to neutralize Syria's neighbors politically," the Arab diplomat says. After the Russian leader wrested Egypt's indulgence, and Jordan and Israel's silence in exchange for neutralizing Hezbollah, he negotiated Turkey's realignment over the summer. "From their eavesdropping station in Khmeimim, the Russian services were able to give Turkey very useful intelligence on what happened during the night of the failed coup against Erdogan," the diplomat says.
"The Turks had promised the Russians not to go beyond 12 kilometers inside Syria," Assad's advisor remembers. "They went back on their promise. Their rebels have gone as far as al-Bab," a town 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border controlled by ISIS and coveted by Damascus and Moscow. "Of course, Donald Trump's election, and perhaps that of François Fillon in France, might help our Russian allies," the Syrian official hopes.