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ISTANBUL, Turkey — It all goes back a couple of months.
There were reports in early August that Iran’s most important intelligence chief Qassem Soliemani visited Moscow.
Soliemani is a closer.
He’s not one to go for preliminary meetings. Moscow and Tehran, just like Washington, were concerned that President Bashar Assad’s regime might fall, which all sides thought would be a disaster. Despite Washington’s public stance that “Assad must go,” U.S. officials don’t want to see him run out of Damascus by ISIS or a rebel mob, not anymore anyway.
These days Assad is so weak Russia and Iran are effectively running Syria.
For Iran, Syria is a key regional ally, a direct line to Hezbollah and a religious partner, since the Assad clan is Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, close enough for Shia Tehran to consider it part of its sphere of influence.
For Russia, Syria is its last client state in the Middle East and home to an important warm water port.
In the meeting in Moscow, Iran and Russia decided to support the Syrian regime so it wouldn’t fall. But does supporting the regime in Damascus necessarily mean sticking with President Assad personally?
A top U.S. intelligence official and a senior Arab diplomat familiar with events in Moscow tell NBC News the two aren’t necessarily linked.
Even before Russia deployed troops to Syria, sources told NBC News that Russia’s increasing interest in Syria could be a way out of what has been a black hole in the Middle East.
The calculation is actually very simple.
By barrel-bombing and rocketing cities across Syria, Assad is creating more enemies than he is killing.
Assad is a magnet for ISIS. Russia and Iran appear to be coming around to the idea that Assad is more of a liability than an asset.
But of course Russia has politics to play and will make sure that any end to the Syrian conflict works in its favor.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials, current and former, and a high-ranking Arab government adviser tell NBC News that Russia wants to make sure the world understands that it sticks by its allies while Washington treats them as disposable.
Don’t expect Russia to come out publicly against Assad.
In the short term, in fact, Russia may try to prop him up, shore up his regime, weaken ISIS, and then, when Moscow is good and ready, it could encourage Assad to step down in a political transition. The process will have to look legitimate with a referendum and/or a political conference in a European capital.
Russia's game plan over the next several months could be to: prop up the regime to make sure Assad doesn’t fall, usher in a new government under Moscow’s supervision and reap the benefits. In this way, Russia proves its position as a world power (an obsession of Putin’s), embarrasses Washington and curtails Tehran’s influence in Syria, which Moscow doesn’t entirely trust.
It’s not surprising or unusual that Russia is intervening in Syria. It’s not as if Washington has done a fantastic job managing the chaos over the last four years.
For Russia, Syria has also become a matter of some urgency. Russia also doesn’t want Syrian-trained jihadis from Chechnya and Dagestan flowing back home.
Already a top US intelligence official said there are meetings with Russian security officials about weakening ISIS.
Big politics are underway. It is a game of chess and Russia has moved its knights and castles towards a checkmate.