JERUSALEM—Two of the world's most authoritarian leaders – Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, who are responsible for the 21st century's bloodiest wars – met in the Kremlin Thursday to discuss an expansion of Moscow's military presence in Syria.
The pact between two of America's top foes raises new questions about whether the Biden administration is in a defensive posture and rapidly losing its influence in a critical region of the world.
"We think that expanding the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing," Assad told Russia's state-controlled news agency RIA in an interview. "Russia's military presence in any country should not be based on anything temporary."
When Putin intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, it helped tip the balance in Assad's favor, ensuring the survival of the Syrian strongman despite Western demands that he be toppled. Assad has waged a war against his population, resulting in the killing of over 500,000 people, including the murder of Syrians with the use of chemical warfare.
The prospective beefed up presence of Russian troops and military bases in Syria would present another challenge to the Biden administration's Middle East policy. U.S. national security experts see China and Russia outmaneuvering the United States in a region where Washington has historically wielded great influence.
Rebekah Koffler, a former analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told Fox News Digital that Putin started to outmaneuver the U.S. 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, back in 2013. Instead, the Russians saw an opening and seized the opportunity to build up its military presence, trying to tip the balance in the Middle East in Russia's favor. Putin is building an anti-U.S. coalition: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria," she noted.
Koffler, who authored the book "Putin's Playbook," added that the Russian leader "wants the Biden administration to think that he can help with the Iran nuclear deal, a peace settlement in Syria, but in reality, Putin will not do anything that aligns with U.S. strategic interests, especially now that U.S. is backing Ukraine. U.S. and Russia's security interests are diametrically opposed."
Fox News Digital reported this week that America's three main adversaries – Russia, China and Iran – plan to hold combined naval military drills in the Gulf of Oman. Just over a week ago, China brokered a rapprochement deal between archenemies Saudi Arabia and the Iranians.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told Fox News Digital, "The evidence on Russia is clear. No matter where they are involved militarily, local civilians pay the price for the Kremlin's destructive playbook that kills civilians to the benefit of Putin. 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 advance Moscow's own selfish interests."
The State Department spokesperson stressed that "Russia's focus should be on advancing a political resolution in Syria as outlined by U.N. 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 Mideast expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told Fox News Digital, "Standing by allies matters. Russia stood by its ally without qualms. Not only will Assad reward Putin, but this move sends a signal to every other leader in the region. This isn't just about Russia's embrace of Syria. It's about Russia's courtship of Egypt and Saudi Arabia."
Rubin added, "We have to calibrate policy to that reality. The Syrian Kurds are allies and friends. If Turkey is backing Islamists proxies, and Russia is doubling down on Assad, we should double down on the Kurds. They are more progressive, able fighters, and want a pro-Western orientation. The question isn't only what the United States should do but what it should not do."
Syria is a fragmented country, with territory controlled by Turkey, Syrian Kurds, Russia and Assad.
Rubin said, "This confirms that Syria will not be unified. At best, with Turkey occupying a zone and now Russia doubling down, Syria will be the new 1990s-era Somalia, divided into zones of influence and governed by different local warlords."
Rubin warned about the dangers of sending aid to Syria's regime. "Any funding we give to international organizations under the guise of reconstruction aid to Syria will essentially reward a Russian proxy for mass murder. 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. Let's not be naïve," he said.
Assad delivered to Moscow a series of tangible rewards during his visit. Assad told Putin, "We believe that if Russia has the desire to expand bases or increase their number, it is a technical or logistical issue."
"Having more bases in Syria is beneficial for Russia and Putin will likely accept the offer," Koffler warned. "Since Russian and U.S.forces operate in proximity in Syria already, expanding Russia's foothold in the region is giving Putin more leverage and the Russian forces more opportunities to collect intelligence on U.S. war fighting tactics, military hardware, etc. The Russians study U.S. ways of war thoroughly, in order to find vulnerabilities and develop counter-strategies."
Syria stood beside Russia on the issue of Ukraine, Assad said. "Because this is my first visit since the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, I would like to repeat 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 that these are Russian territories, and even if the war had not happened, these are historically Russian territories," Assad told RIA.
Assad's years as president have been defined by the conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before spiraling into a multi-sided conflict that has fractured the Middle Eastern country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies.
He has stitched much of his state back together with the help of Russia and Iran, aided by the fact that his allies were always more committed to his survival than his enemies were to his defeat.
Alongside the Hmeimim air base, from which Russia launches air strikes in support of Assad, Moscow also controls the Tartus naval facility in Syria, its only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, in use since the days of the Soviet Union.
Russia's defense ministry said in January that Russia and Syria had restored the al-Jarrah military air base in Syria's north to be jointly used. The small base east of Aleppo was recaptured from Islamic State fighters in 2017. Press queries sent to the Russian government were not returned.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Benjamin Weinthal, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, reports on Israel, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Europe for Fox News Digital. Follow him on Twitter at @BenWeinthal.