- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2015

Vladimir Putin’s speech Monday is shaping up to be biggest of this year’s U.N. General Assembly, as Obama administration officials brace for the Russian leader to lambaste their failed Syria policy and call on the world to get behind his plan for saving the war-torn Middle East from the clutches of the Islamic State.

While national security insiders are framing the speech as a propaganda stunt aimed at steering world attention from Moscow’s bad behavior in Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community is scrambling to assess the true motivations behind Mr. Putin’s recent increase in Russian military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Intelligence sources say a host of factors are at play. Although they caution against viewing Mr. Putin’s moves through a Cold War-era prism, they say there is little question of his desire to project power and poke a geopolitical finger in America’s eye as world leaders gather in New York.

Moscow’s recent moves in Syria are an attempt to place it at the center of the world stage,” said one U.S. official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

“There’s no doubt,” said another U.S. official. “Putin views Syria as an opportunity to build a significant presence in the region and establish Russia as the lead player.”

Although Russia and Iran have long been the Assad regime’s top backers, Mr. Putin said his real goal is to help the Syrian military fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

This has caught the White House off guard and added a deep layer of stickiness to the administration’s struggling posture toward Syria’s war.

Although the Islamic State may be may be a common enemy of the U.S., Russia and Iran, the three disagree over the future of Mr. Assad in Syria.

The Obama administration spent much of the past four years calling for the Syrian president’s ouster on grounds that he fueled the rise of extremists by authorizing Syria’s military to conduct genocide-style attacks on civilians.

The big question now is whether Mr. Putin can muscle President Obama — as well as others in a broad coalition against the Islamic State and the Assad regime — into abandoning their long-held demand that the Syrian president step down.

The Russian president’s timing could not be more opportune. He will make his speech amid much hand-wringing in Washington over the Pentagon’s failed $500 million program to train a “moderate” opposition force that could simultaneously fight the Assad regime and the Islamic State.

It also comes as millions of refugees flee from the war zone into Europe and coincides with a moment of uncertainty in U.S. policy, since retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen — Mr. Obama’s hand-picked emissary to the anti-Islamic State coalition — announced his intention to resign by the end of this year.

All of these factors will hang in the background when Mr. Obama meets with Mr. Putin in New York. Analysts generally agree that Mr. Obama will accept a compromise.

“If there is a consensus that’s going to emerge here among all the players, it will involve allowing Assad to stick around for the short term but not for the long term,” said Paul Pillar, a former career CIA official presently with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. “I think that represents the convergency point between, on the one hand the Iranian and Russian support for the Assad regime and, on the other hand, the ‘Assad must go’ position of the Americans, Turks and others.”

The administration has offered mixed signals over the past week.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters on Thursday that Russia’s military buildup in Syria could “pour gasoline on the ISIL phenomenon,” purely because Moscow is bent on backing Mr. Assad.

But the defense secretary also suggested that the administration is willing to work with Russia and might ease off its calls for Mr. Assad’s ouster — as long as the long-term goal remains political transition in Damascus.

Taking to the world stage

On Friday, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on Syria policy, Philip Gordon, asserted that it is “increasingly difficult to deny what should have been apparent for some time: The current policy of the United States and its partners to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure must be rethought.”

In a column for Politico magazine, Mr. Gordon wrote that a “messy compromise” is now needed to “deescalate the conflict — even if that means putting off agreement on the question of Assad.”

But U.S. intelligence officials say it may still be wishful thinking to assume that Mr. Putin will ever abandon Mr. Assad.

Moscow’s gamble on backing the Assad regime will take some time to gauge,” one official told The Times, noting that Mr. Putin is “now in position to play a role in choosing Assad’s successor.”

Another U.S. official said the Russian president “may be inclined to push Assad out if Assad’s ongoing failures threaten to trip up Putin’s strutting across [the world] stage.”

Richard Gowan, a fellow with New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said the U.N. speech “is a propaganda opportunity for Putin.”

“It’s his first visit to the U.N. in 10 years, and he knows that all eyes will be on him because there’s still a lot of uncertainty over what he plans in Syria,” Mr. Gowan said. “He’s not going to sort of desert Assad live on the stage at the U.N., but I think whatever he does say may initiate a process in which both sides will compromise over Assad’s future — but that could take months.”

Others say Moscow’s buildup in Syria is likely spurred by Russian intelligence assessments that the Assad regime is on the verge of being swallowed by the Islamic State and other surging jihadi groups in Syria.

Some argue that Moscow’s real strategic calculus is rooted in Mr. Putin’s desire to protect Russia’s only naval outpost in the Mediterranean — the Soviet-era naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus — even if extremists take over the rest of the country.

Tartus and the Syrian city of Latakia, home to Moscow’s largest foreign electronic eavesdropping site, are dominated by the Alawite religious sect from which the Assad family hails.

Putin is building a Russian- and Iranian-supported enclave [in those two cities], where Assad’s forces can defend a rump Syrian state,” said Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA official now with the Brookings Institution.

The Russian military support, he said, will inevitably “put more pressure on Obama to get enmeshed” in the war and ultimately “match Putin not just in Ukraine, but now in the Middle East.”

Putin is taking advantage of the fact that the U.S. doesn’t really have a coherent policy toward Syria and has been very reluctant to get involved,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“He’s seizing this opportunity to step in and say, ‘I’m ready to fight ISIS and fight global terror,’ and he’s trying to frame this fight as greater than the differences between the U.S. and Russia,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “In reality, I don’t think he has any interest in fighting ISIS or global terror, but he’s trying to use it to give himself international legitimacy, to end his isolation over Ukraine, and to make Russia a key global power again.

“Monday,” she said, “will be one of the most important speeches Putin has given in his career.”

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