Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier this month called "perplexing" the fighting in Syria between US troops and their allies against supposed Russian mercenaries. Now, US intelligence reports may shed some light on the Kremlin's ties to it all, with fingers pointing to a Russian oligarch thought to be in charge of the mercenaries and said to have been in contact with both the Russian and Syrian governments shortly before the assault. The Washington Post identifies Yevgeny Prigozhin as that oligarch, and his name may ring a bell: He was one of 13 Russian nationals indicted last week by Robert Mueller for funding and managing an "information warfare" troll farm that targeted the US presidential election. Prigozhin's alleged communications with Syria and Russia raises eyebrows, as the Kremlin had insisted the Russians fighting the US troops and their allies weren't Russian soldiers.
Intercepted communications reveal Prigozhin told a top-level Syrian official he'd "secured permission" from an un-IDed Russian minister to go ahead with a "fast and strong" action set for early February. A few days later, he noted he had a "good surprise" in store on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, set to take place "between 6 and 9 February" (the US and Syrian opposition forces were attacked on the night of Feb. 7). The mercenaries involved in the attack are said to be a mix of military vets and "ultra-nationalist" Russians employed by a firm called Wagner. Russia keeps changing its story, and US intelligence officials aren't commenting, but a senior US administration official calls the attack "worrisome." The New York Times, which offers Prigozhin's nickname as "Putin's cook," details the oligarch's rise from hot dog vendor to "one of Russia's richest men," one with close ties to Putin himself. (Read more Syria stories.)