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.
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.
3. Russia’s actions are contributing to a continuing and growing wave of Syrian refugees, with repercussions for the United States and its allies.
While Putin has claimed that Russia’s airstrikes in Syria are part of a strategy against ISIS or other terrorist groups, his real aim is to save Assad. To do so, Russia and Assad are targeting mostly non-ISIS groups, and they are bombing with little concern for civilian populations, hoping to leave the West with a choice between Assad and ISIS. The continuous attacks, including most recently in and around Syria’s second-largest city, the formerly rebel-held Aleppo, has created a new chapter in the refugee crisis, putting pressure on Turkey, which is already burdened with some 2.5 million refugees, and potentially Europe and the United States.
4. Russia, by helping create more refugees from Syria, is helping divide Europe against itself.
The European Union has survived a multitude of challenges, but the alliance that survived the Greek debt crisis, the banking collapse and even a clash with Russia over its invasion of Ukrainian territory, may not be able to withstand the Syrian refugee crisis. One can imagine a smile of satisfaction on Putin’s face as he watches German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s idealistic call for opening the borders come under withering attack. The refugee crisis, and the debate over terrorist attacks by Islamists with links to Syrian terrorists, is bolstering extreme right-wing politicians, casting doubt on the viability of Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel and putting a shadow on the EU’s survival. The weakening of Europe is a loss for the United States and a gain for Russia.
5. Russia is gaming the United States at the diplomatic table.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Munich, Germany, that world powers had agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, few people expected the guns to go quiet. In fact, the one-week delay built into the agreement led some of us to predict that the killing would only intensify as a result of the deal. That is precisely what happened. But that is not all that happened. The Russians toyed with the United States at the negotiating table.
The victims, as always, are the Syrian people, who are giving their lives as world powers and terrorist chieftains decide their fates. Russia agreed to the plan, but it made clear that the shooting halt did not apply to “terrorist” groups. In other words, Russia agreed to nothing but did intensify its attacks in Aleppo, helping secure huge strategic gains for Assad. The U.S. diplomatic effort, which is driven by good intentions, looked hapless.
Perhaps one day Putin will regret intervening in Syria. For now, as his forces bomb hospitals in Syria, and his supporters in Moscow call on the United Nations to punish Obama, Putin can only marvel at the success of his Syrian operation. Not only has he saved Assad from what was starting to look like the end of his rule, but he has also weakened the United States, its allies, and its alliances.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.