WASHINGTON – What is Russian President Vladimir Putin really up to in Syria?
Just the opposite of what he is telling the world, according to two of the top foreign-policy experts in Washington.
Putin recently declared Russia has taken the lead in the fight against the terrorist army ISIS in Syria.
"Putin isn't there to fight terrorism – he's partnering with terrorists," a leading conservative lawmaker's aide, having just returned from consultations with leaders in the Middle East, told WND.
The reference was to Iran, the leading state-sponsor of terrorism. Putin announced earlier this week that Russia had formed a coalition with Iran and Iraq to fight ISIS by sharing intelligence. Putin's Russia is also the strongest ally of Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad, who has killed 250,000 people in his country's civil war.
The source said Russia's real goal was "to prop up Assad. Salvaging Assad looked impossible 18 months ago. Now it's perfectly feasible."
Iran and Middle East expert Clare Lopez of the Center for Security Policy agreed, telling WND, "Russia is there to save Assad's regime, which the combined forces of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria forces could not do."
The proof of the experts' analysis seemed to be confirmed by Putin's actions, as opposed to his words.
Russia began bombing what it said were ISIS targets on Wednesday and continued to do so on Thursday. However, as the Pentagon claimed, and a rebel commander on the ground confirmed, Russia mostly bombed areas run by CIA-trained forces fighting Assad and supported by the United States.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter cited a "logical contradiction" in Russia's claim it was fighting terrorists while supporting Assad.
Lopez explained it wasn't a contradiction; Russia has different goals than the U.S.
"They (the Russians) are not there to destroy ISIS. In fact, I think there is an argument to be made that both Iran and Russia, in a way, 'need' ISIS to continue to exist - as a 'reason' for their military campaign, which, in fact, is about destroying all the other forces" attempting to topple Assad, Russia's key Mideast ally.
She said those forces included the U.S.-backed (and putatively secular) Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaida in Syria,) Ahrar ash-Sham (another Islamist group fighting Assad.) Lopez indicated Russia may turn on ISIS at some point to protect Syria, once its other threats are eliminated.
Russia's increased presence in Syria gives it a long-sought foothold in the Middle East, as evidenced by its recent dramatic increase in fighter jets, troop housing and weapons at military bases in Syria. It also gives Russia a naval port in the Mediterranean.
But, Lozpez said, ISIS also benefits: it gets a new enemy in Russia that can be used for propaganda purposes.
"ISIS gets its 'Crusaders,' doesn't it?" she asked rhetorically. "There will definitely be a reaction from the Sunni world. Look for a flood of new backing, funding and recruits, probably pouring in through a newly once-again loose Turkish border."
What should the U.S. do about Russia's sudden insertion into the Syrian civil war, and Putin's claim to have taken the lead in a battle against ISIS that critics have blasted President Obama for pursuing too weakly to be effective?
"Should the U.S. go to war over a handful of rebels of uncertain loyalty? Probably not," said the source.
"But we are going to have to take a long hard look at what, if any, options we have in Syria and Iraq. We have a serious intelligence problem, as the administration has been caught flat-footed twice – first by ISIS, then by Putin. We have increasingly limited options as the Russian umbrella of air defense will hamper our ability to strike at will, if the Russians don't agree with our targets."
Why did Putin make his dramatic move?
"Putin is an opportunist," said the source. "He smelled opportunity in Ukraine and took advantage of it. Now he has Crimea. He smells opportunity in Syria. A year ago, Assad's ouster seemed a matter of time. Now, Putin looks like he will salvage a valuable client, one who will be eternally grateful. And he has a toehold in Iraq."
How did Putin get away with it?
"It's classic Putin – he's skirting a gray line," said the policy expert.
"Our relationship with the rebels is murky at best. We've been pretty explicit that we will neither defend them from the regime nor provide them with the weapons to attack the regime, since our mission is restricted to ISIS.
"It's not dissimilar to what Putin did in Ukraine in violation of the Budapest Memorandum, which states the U.S. will defend Ukraine in the event that its territorial integrity is violated. But, as a memorandum, it isn't binding. And he knew Obama had no interest in a ground war with Russia over Ukraine, and so just did what he wanted, insisting all the while he wasn't doing it. We see the same playbook in Syria."
Lopez suggested Obama might not even mind the Russian incursion, despite what he says publicly.
"We should not be surprised if the Obama White House reaches some kind of accommodation with Russia, just as it already has with Russian partners in Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, and Beirut."
That's because, Lopez believes, despite what he has said, Obama has no wish to see Assad toppled.
"In fact," she asserted, "the Obama strategy is not so very different than Putin's: keep the Assad regime in power in Damascus by working with Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its special forces Quds unit, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. And now, soon, Russia."
And that could lead to revolutionary changes in U.S. foreign policy.
"Perhaps there might be some sort of 'understanding' reached over Crimea and the Ukraine, in a way that allows Moscow to save face and the White House to claim success in dealing with Putin," Lopez speculated. "In fact, nothing will change there, but I expect that the U.S. is going to find itself, more or less, openly allied with the Baghdad-Damascus-Moscow-Tehran-Beirut axis sooner rather than later."
And, in fact, she believes U.S. foreign policy at present is not the same as Obama portrays it.
The president has repeatedly said Assad must leave power and be replaced by a democratic and secular government.
Lopez remarked, she's "not completely sure why nobody has actually noticed by now, but it has never been White House policy to actually oust Bashar al-Assad."
Yes, the U.S. had equipped and trained Syrian rebels. But that was because, she asserted, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned elements inside the Obama administration and among its advisers "succeeded in getting the State Department to run guns out of Libya to the al Qaida and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian rebels."
That same pressure, according to Lopez, was also likely responsible for the CIA setting up Syrian-rebel training camps inside Jordan and Turkey, "which wound up sending jihadis to the Islamic State and other jihadist outfits."
Lopez, who spent two decades in the field as a CIA operations officer, was an instructor for military intelligence and special forces students and has published two books on Iran. She has long-asserted, and previously described to WND in great detail, her contention that Obama wants to enable "Iran to become the overall nuclear-armed hegemon of the Persian Gulf-al-Sham region."
"This is why the U.S. negotiating team conceded every single major Iranian demand for its nuclear weapons program, from enrichment, to centrifuges, ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), inspections, the Arak plutonium-producing heavy water reactor, sites with possible military dimensions, and most egregiously, our four American citizen hostages."
And that contributed, in her view, to Obama's reluctance to both remove Assad and seriously oppose ISIS.
"That was also why the U.S. has never provided more than token weaponry to the Kurds, the single most effective fighting force on the ground over there, but rather insisted on channeling everything through Iran's Baghdad puppet regime.
"It is why Obama backed away from his ostensible 'red lines' regarding Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, and never even made mention of Assad's extensive, sophisticated bio-weapons program.
"And finally, it is why the Obama admin has refused to back in any serious way any of those among the Syrian rebels who might have been pro-West, pro-U.S., or committed to a less tyrannical system in Damascus."
Lopez told WND that was because such steps on the part of the U.S. government might have put serious pressure on the Assad regime, "and that would have upset the mullahs."
"Earlier rhetoric that 'Assad must go' was just that: rhetoric."
And, as for fighting against ISIS, Lopez insisted there just are not any significant rebel militias or tribal forces in Syria that prioritize fighting ISIS over fighting Damascus.
"That's one of the key reasons for the unmitigated disaster of a U.S. training program that has a mere handful, maybe, of fighters to show for a half-billion dollar waste of taxpayer money."
That's also why, she said, the U.S. had ended up working with an Iranian-controlled Baghdad, sharing a military base in Iraq with Iranian-controlled Shi'ite terrorist militias, and providing air support and intelligence to Hezballah forces.
Lopez described the result as an America "generally flailing about the region in completely ineffectual and often contradictory ways that nevertheless manage rather uniformly to run counter to core U.S. national security interests and those of our key regional allies, especially Israel."
As for the future? Bleak, according to Lopez.
ISIS and Iran are natural rivals, in that they follow rival competing brands of Islam and are Sunnis and Shiites, respectively.
But they share common goals in conquering Sunni monarchies they view as corrupt, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf States.
"Now, look ahead," beckoned Lopez. "What would ISIS's next moves be on this Middle East chess board? What I've been expecting for quite a long time is pivot west and south. West thru Jordan, destabilizing as they go, on to the Sinai to link up the Egyptian Islamist group Wilayat Sinai, and south into Saudi territory, because Saudi Arabia is the big prize here."
Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina. It is also home to fabulous oil wealth and is strategically situated in between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, not far from the Suez Canal.
Lopez speculated Iran might even find it particularly useful to let ISIS flourish, if it could be turned against its rich neighbor.
"In a way, ISIS may – possibly – if this actually happens – act as the Iranian cat's-paw vs the Saudis. Iran can't, or, at least, probably won't, invade Saudi Arabia straight up – they always use proxies when they can. What better proxy than ISIS?
"Total, but total, plausible deniability."
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth