U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, warned Monday of the potential direct threat to the U.S. military from Russia's buildup in Syria, even as he backed talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to ease the crisis.
Breedlove said Putin's claim that the buildup was aimed at ISIS was bogus.
"I have not seen ISIL flying any aircraft requiring SA-15s or Sa-22s," Breedlove said, referring to Russian anti-air missile batteries sent to Syria and using another term for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as ISIL).
In a roundabout way, Breedlove, who doubles as head of U.S. European Command, suggested to a forum at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C., that Russia's deployment of fighter aircraft, anti-air missile batteries, troops and tanks to Syria could only be seen as an effort to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Is this really about ISIL? We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into those airfields" in Syria, he said. "We some very sophisticated air-to-aircraft," Breedlove said.
The commander said the Russian buildup could best been seen as aimed at the U.S. and others who have called for Assad's ouster.
"These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL, they're about something else. High on Mr. Putin's list in Syria is preserving the regime against those that are putting pressure on the regime and against those that they see who might be supporting those putting pressure on the regime," he said.
Breedlove said he also was concerned about Russia developing a defensive "bubble" of so-called anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) anti-ship and anti-air missiles around the naval base of Tartus that Russia has maintained in northeastern Syria for decades.
"It's one of the things we are beginning to watch (them) develop in the northeast Mediterranean as we see these very capable air defense capabilities beginning to show up in Syria," Breedlove said. "We are a little worried about another A2AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean."
Breedlove spoke hours before President Obama was to meet Putin in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session.
Despite his concerns about Russia's intent, Breedlove said the meeting of the two leaders was "incredibly important. We need to have dialogue, we need to have communication with Russia."
The opposite tack was taken by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a harsh critic of the Obama administration's strategy and tactics in the Mideast and elsewhere.
"President Obama's decision to meet with Vladimir Putin is as misguided as it is unnecessary," McCain said in a statement. "It plays right into Putin's hands by breaking his international isolation, undermining U.S. policy, and legitimizing Putin's destabilizing behavior – from dismembering Ukraine to propping Bashar Assad in Syria."
Prior to their meeting, Obama and Putin both addressed the General Assembly, and both appeared to set terms for little compromise on Syria.
Obama said he welcomed working with Putin to end Syria's civil war but called for a "managed transition" as part of a political solution that would result in Assad's ouster.
"We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo," Obama said.
Putin rejected a solution that left out Assad. "We believe it's a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face-to-face," Putin said.