A Russian oligarch and Putin ally believed to be pulling the strings of a notorious Russian mercenary group in Syria was reportedly in close contact with Syrian officials in the days leading up to an attack on U.S. forces there this month. Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last week for allegedly conspiring to interfere in U.S. elections, was caught in intercepted communications speaking to Syrian officials in late January, according to intelligence reports seen by The Washington Post. In one conversation on Jan. 24, Prigozhin reportedly told a senior Syrian official he had “secured permission” from a Russian minister to launch a “fast and strong” initiative in early February. Days later, he reportedly promised a “good surprise” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad between Feb. 6 and 9. The attack on a base shared by U.S. troops and their Syrian allies occurred on the night of Feb. 7-8, when between 300 and 500 “pro-regime forces” assailed the base. The Pentagon has stressed that it is still investigating who was behind the attack, and U.S. intelligence officials have not yet commented on the reports detailing Prigozhin’s communications. Moscow has played down reports that hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed in the U.S. airstrikes that followed the attack, saying only that “several dozen” Russian citizens had died.