Russia has made no bones about its desire to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and Vladimir Putin has clearly put his bombs where his mouth is: Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and the most important one outside of Damascus, is on the way to falling to Assad, thanks to a firestorm of Russian attacks from the air.
A year after Assad seemed ready to run, he looks not only able to survive but beat down a widespread Sunni Muslim insurgency. His guardian angels are Russia and Iran's ruling mullahs. Russia's jet bombing has been especially decisive in isolating Aleppo and routing rebels.
Last year, US President Barack Obama dismissed Putin's intervention as a descent into quagmire, and it may eventually turn out to be so. But for the moment, Secretary of State John Kerry is left to practically beg Putin to lay off. The US dream of an Assad-free Syria, replaced by some sort of inclusive government, seems distant. Dead also is the idea that Iran, which after the nuclear program deal was welcomed into what's called the global community, would opt out of military activity in the Middle East.
It was always clear that Iran would not easily give up its hold on Syria. Even if Assad somehow was persuaded to leave, Iran would want someone in his place who was as pliable (read: willing to keep its arms supply to its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon open). There's a sectarian aspect, too. Surrendering Syria would have meant the end of revolutionary Tehran's aim to spread Shiite Islamic influence into the heart of the Sunni Muslim Arab world. So Syria's Alawite minority, of which Assad is a member, has to remain in charge of the Sunni-majority country.
Russian stakes seem much less vital than Iran's. Keeping a Mediterranean naval base, that Russia may have not lost anyway, hardly justifies the destruction its planes are wreaking on Syria.
On the other hand, Putin has thrown the West and Middle Eastern allies into general disarray. He undoubtedly takes great pleasure in that. Europe is quaking under a migrant onslaught. Turkey has been hit by multiple terror attacks. And the US is caught up in sterile election debates about the horror of Syria without anyone offering clear ideas of what to do about it.
Putin's tactics in Syria are remarkably similar to ones he used to subdue a separatist rebellion in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000. His army pulverized the Chechen capital, Grozny, with artillery and jet bombing. Troops surrounded the city in an air-tight siege. Civilians fled, leaving the city as a free-fire zone.
The same is happening at Aleppo, with Russian air power carrying much of the freight. Rebels say multiple bombing runs take place every hour. Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah soldiers and Iranian-sponsored militias have surrounded the city. The West and Turkey may be horrified by the stream of refugees from the city, but for Putin, that's a good sign. Let Turkey and Europe worry about refugees.
Neighboring players in the region that have intervened one way or another are reluctant to forcefully help their rebel friends. Saudi Arabia is tied up in their own misguided Yemen bombing adventure. Turkey is mostly interested in bombing Syrian Kurds. Jordan is weak. And of course, all lack any sense of direction from Washington, nominal ally of all and leader of the Assad-must-go team. Obama has substituted an ineffective campaign against the Islamic State for an overall Syria policy.
It can be said that George Bush's war in Iraq opened Baghdad to Iranian domination. Obama's indecisiveness (or decision not to be decisive) guarantees Iran's ability to call the shots in Syria.
How, you may ask, can all this happen in the middle of Geneva peace talks, which have been suspended because of the Aleppo onslaught? Maybe the Vietnam War offers some perspective: from 1969 on, the US and North Vietnamese alternately escalated and eased military activity while peace negotiations dragged on and off; the US was especially active in launching massive bomb campaigns to encourage North Vietnam to accept an accord. It's pretty clear that Putin does not consider negotiations and bombing to be contradictory.
The destruction of Syria is awful. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are homeless, in and outside of Syria. City after city has been devastated. And now Aleppo, which in the last years of pre-insurgency Syria experienced a kind of commercial renaissance, is being battered. The renaissance is long over; welcome to the Dark Ages.
It's still hard to see how an Assad government can reconstruct Syria, both physically and politically, after the war should he, the Russians and Iran prevail. But that seems not to matter. Aleppo, however battered, is a trophy for the three.