JERUSALEM – Two of the world’s most authoritarian leaders – Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, responsible for the bloodiest wars of the 21st century – met Thursday in the Kremlin to discuss an expansion of Moscow’s military presence in Syria.
The pact between two of America’s major enemies raises new questions about whether the Biden administration is in a defensive position and is rapidly losing its influence in a critical region of the world.
“We think the expansion of the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing,” Assad told Russia’s state news agency RIA in an interview. “Russia’s military presence in any country should not be based on something temporary.”
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When Putin intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, he helped tip the balance in Assad’s favor, ensuring the survival of the Syrian strongman despite Western calls to overthrow him. Assad waged war against his own population, resulting in the killing of over 500,000 people, including the assassination of Syrians using chemical warfare.
The potentially enhanced presence of Russian troops and military bases in Syria would pose another challenge to the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. US national security experts see China and Russia outsmarting the United States in a region where Washington has historically wielded great influence.
Rebekah Koffler, a former US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, told Fox News Digital that Putin began maneuvering the United States in the Middle East with President Obama, when Biden was his vice president.
“Putin tricked Obama and by proxy Biden into letting the Russians transfer chemical weapons out of Syria in 2013. Instead, the Russians saw an opening and seized the opportunity to beef up their military presence, trying to lean the balance in the Middle East in favor of Russia. Putin is building an anti-US coalition: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria,” he noted.
Koffler, author of the book “Putin’s Playbook”, added that the Russian leader “wants the Biden administration to think it can help with the Iranian nuclear deal, a peace deal in Syria, but in reality, Putin will do nothing that is aligned with US strategic interests, especially now that the US is backing Ukraine. The security interests of the US and Russia are diametrically opposed.”
Fox News Digital reported this week that America’s top three adversaries – Russia, China and Iran – plan to hold combined naval military exercises in the Gulf of Oman. Just over a week ago, China brokered a rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia’s archenemies and the Iranians.
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A US State Department spokesman told Fox News Digital: “The evidence about Russia is clear. No matter where they are militarily involved, local civilians are paying the price for the Kremlin’s destructive playbook of killing civilians for Putin’s benefit. This is clear in Russia’s military campaigns in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, where they use military and paramilitary forces to exploit civilians in conflict zones to further Moscow’s selfish interests.”
The spokesman added: “Russia’s military campaign in Syria in support of the Assad regime has led to massive destruction, as well as the death or displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. These military operations undermine the conditions for a political resolution of the conflict.” Syria, and Russia has made no real effort to induce significant changes in the appalling behavior of the Syrian government towards its own people.”
The State Department spokesman stressed that “Russia’s goal should be to advance a political resolution in Syria, as outlined by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, rather than bringing more suffering to the Syrian people.” Resolution 2254, from eight years ago, outlines a peace process to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Michael Rubin, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told Fox News Digital, “Staying on the side of allies is important. Russia stood by its unscrupulous ally. Not only will Assad reward Putin, but this move sends a signal to all other leaders in the region. It’s not just about Russia’s embrace of Syria. It’s about Russia’s courtship of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
Rubin added: “We need to calibrate policy according to this reality. The Syrian Kurds are allies and friends. If Turkey is backing proxy Islamists and Russia is doubling down on Assad, we should double down on the Kurds. They are more progressive, capable fighters and want a pro-Western orientation. The question is not only what the United States should do, but also what it shouldn’t do.”
Syria is a fragmented country, with territory controlled by Turkey, the Syrian Kurds, Russia and Assad.
Rubin said: “This confirms that Syria will not be unified. At best, with Turkey occupying one zone and now Russia doubling in size, Syria will be the new Somalia of the 1990s, divided into zones of influence and ruled by different local warlords”.
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Rubin has warned of the dangers of sending aid to the Syrian regime. “Any funding we give to international organizations under the guise of helping rebuild Syria will essentially reward a Russian prosecutor for mass murder. The money is fungible. What we give in the name of reconstruction essentially helps Assad and Putin build a base The fact that Assad offers this shows where his priorities are. We are not naive,” he said.
Assad delivered a number of tangible rewards to Moscow during his visit. Assad told Putin: “We believe that if Russia has a desire to expand bases or increase their number, it is a technical or logistical problem.”
“Having more bases in Syria is beneficial to Russia and Putin will probably accept the offer,” warned Koffler. “Because Russian and US forces are already operating in the vicinity of Syria, Russia’s expanding foothold in the region is giving Putin more influence and Russian forces more opportunities to gather intelligence on US war tactics, ‘military hardware, etc. Russians study US warfare thoroughly, in order to find vulnerabilities and develop counter-strategies.”
Syria has stood by Russia on the Ukraine issue, Assad said. “As this is my first visit since the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, I would like to reiterate the Syrian position in support of this special operation,” Assad told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript.
Syria recognizes the territories of Ukraine that Russia has seized as Russian, Assad said. “I say these are Russian territories, and even if the war hadn’t happened, these are historically Russian territories,” Assad told RIA.
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Assad’s years as president were defined by the conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before escalating into a multilateral conflict that fractured the Middle Eastern country and attracted foreign friends and foes.
He has patched up much of his state with the help of Russia and Iran, aided by the fact that his allies have always been more committed to his survival than his enemies were to his defeat.
In addition to the Hmeimim air base, from which Russia launches air strikes in support of Assad, Moscow also controls the Tartus naval base in Syria, the only naval outpost in the Mediterranean, in use since the days of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s defense ministry said in January that Russia and Syria had reinstated the al-Jarrah military airbase in northern Syria for joint use. The small base east of Aleppo was recaptured by Islamic State fighters in 2017. Press inquiries sent to the Russian government have not been returned.
Reuters contributed to this report.