Assad’s endgame likely rests in Russian hands

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly Monday, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Russian President Vladimir Putin later told the same audience that Assad must stay.

Caught in the middle, the disagreement could leave Assad scrambling for his life as military activity escalates in his country.

Even though Obama and Putin agreed that the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL) must be defeated, and promised to consult each other on how to do it, chilling evidence of their deep distrust erupted early Wednesday morning.

Russia began airstrikes in Syria after giving the U.S. military, also planning strikes, only one-hour notice through unconventional means.

“A Russian official in Baghdad this morning (Wednesday) informed U.S. Embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria,” a Defense Department official said in a statement to WTOP.

The Russian official, said to have been a general officer, “further requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions,” the DOD official said.

But the official said in the statement, “The U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL.”

The abrupt strikes left U.S. military officials scrambling to determine what Russia’s plans were and to ensure no U.S. military assets or personnel were in danger.

If the Russian intervention does not succeed, Assad may be forced to flee, and U.S. officials say he’s counting on Russia to help him secure a safe haven.

U.S. intelligence officials believe both Russia’s aggressive activities in Syria and Assad’s desperation to hang on to power are rooted in differing, but complimentary attempts at self-preservation.

For Assad, a member of the Alawite religious group — it could be a matter of life or death.

“You’re not going to see the Alawites give up and accept democracy in Syria, because they’d immediately be voted out and end up in the slaughter house,” said former CIA operative Robert Baer in an interview.

Alawites describe themselves as a sect of Shiite Islam. The Alawis, as they are also known, represent 12 percent of Syria’s 23 million people — a significant minority compared to the 17 million Sunnis who call Syria home.

Most of Syria’s ruling and military elite are members of the Alawis.

Experts say without Russia’s escalating military activity in Syria, the Assad regime could possibly be overrun by the convergence of pressure imposed by Syrian opposition groups, Kurdish fighters, the ISIL and other Sunni-dominated opposition groups.

Russia has been involved in Syria for decades, but “this level of presence is new. So where we’re focused now is how they intend to use that leverage,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, whose agency has been studying Russia’s activities in Syria.

Cardillo believes both Assad and Russia are thinking about survival scenarios.

“A scenario, which could happen, is if Syria continues to disintegrate and Assad feels threatened in Damascus more so than he is today, a likely scenario is that he’ll fall to Alawi portions of Syria,” said Cardillo.

Russia’s principle reason for coming to Assad’s defense, he said, might rest purely on an ironic happenstance linked to Russia’s strategic need to maintain access to a port in the region for its navy.

“Russia likes to have warm water ports and year-round access. There is one such port in Syria. It’s called Tartus. It’s on the coast of the Mediterranean and Syria,” said Cardillo.

The Port of Tartus “coincidentally” sits “in the Alawi Mountains in the Alawi region of Syria, which is Assad’s hometown,” Cardillo said.

Another U.S. intelligence official, when asked about Russian intentions said, “Putin’s moves in Syria have put Russian prestige on the world stage, which was his primary motivation.”

But, the official said Putin is facing a big temptation.

“Having put Russian prestige on the line, if current measures are not enough to tilt the Syrian conflict in his favor, the temptation to escalate Russian involvement could be hard to resist.”

The official also warned Russia not to be seduced by the accolades Putin is currently receiving.

“Despite the laurels some may throw his way for his bold and brazen moves over the past weeks, it should not be lost that he has now jumped into a messy conflict with both feet and doubled down on a failed dictator. History has generally not been kind to decisions like that,” the official said.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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