Russia is using Syria to run circles around U.S.

Story highlights

  • Russia courts Syrian Kurds, threatening U.S. ties to allies in ISIS fight, Frida Ghitis says
  • Ghitis: Vladimir Putin is outplaying U.S. and allies in Syria, with disastrous consequences
  • Russia's actions are contributing to a growing wave of Syrian refugees, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)It is quite clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin views the United States not as a partner or even as an adversary but as an enemy. The fact is brought to grotesque levels by a new public campaign that literally draws horns on President Barack Obama, describing him as an international mass murderer. (The Russian government denies responsibility for the campaign.) The campaign is shocking and eye-catching, like a highway wreck. But far more distressing is what Putin is doing in Syria, where he is outplaying America and its allies, with disastrous consequences.

Frida Ghitis
In October, when Russia started bombing Syria, Obama confidently predicted that Putin would regret his decision to enter the Syrian civil war. "An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population," Obama predicted, "is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work."
Perhaps in the long term Obama will be proved right and Syria will, in fact, become Putin's Vietnam. But so far, Putin has not only turned the tide of war in Syria, reversing what was a steady loss of territory for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but he is also playing his Syria intervention as part of a global chess match against the West. To put it bluntly, Putin is running circles around the United States and Europe.
    Here are five ways Russia is outplaying the West via Syria:
    1. Russia is taunting Turkey, hoping for a crack in NATO unity.
    The tensions between Russia and Turkey -- a NATO member -- have intensified since Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian plane near its Syrian border in November. Since then, Russia has kept its promise to exact a painful price in retaliation. Diplomatic, economic and on-the-ground consequences are visible.
    Turkey says Russian planes continue to violate its airspace. Turkey is already shelling positions held by Russian-supported Syrian Kurds. If Turkey moves forces into Syria, which is possible, the prospect of direct Russian-Turkish fighting could force the United States and Europe to join the fight under NATO's collective defense principle. NATO would face the choice of going to war against Russia for the sake of its least reliable ally, Turkey, or enduring a dangerous crack in the alliance.
    2. Russia is courting the Syrian Kurds, threatening American links to important allies in the fight against ISIS.
    A few weeks ago, the United Nations sponsored a sad round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland. The Syrian Kurds, America's most effective on-the-ground allies against ISIS and who hold a significant amount of Syrian territory, were not invited to the doomed conference because Turkey views the Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, as terrorist enemies. While the United States didn't have much to say on the issue, Russia embraced the Syrian Kurds with both arms. Russia argued that they should be included. And now, the Syrian Kurds have opened an office in Moscow, calling the event "a historic moment for the Kurdish people." Not only is Russia highlighting the contradictions and unreliability of America's Syria strategy, but it is courting the Kurds away from the United States.