For Syrians, Russia's road to Ukraine started in Damascus
On Monday morning, the residents of the Syrian al-Rukban IDP camp awoke to Russian jets screaming across the sky. This was an anomaly – the first time in nearly four years Russian planes violated the US-controlled airspace along the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Two thousand kilometres away, Russian troops were assembling in unprecedented numbers on the borders of Ukraine. Three days later, Russian troops entered Ukraine and launched missiles all across the country, including the capital city, Kyiv.
European and US diplomats were quick to condemn the move, calling it a breach of international law and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. To many, the idea of a Russian military invasion of another state on the European continent was a shock and a challenge to the international norms that comprise their worldview.
To Syrians, however, Russia’s actions and the inability of the international community to stop it was no surprise.
"To many, the idea of a Russian military invasion of another state on the European continent was a shock...To Syrians, however, Russia’s actions and the inability of the international community to stop it was no surprise"
“What’s happening in Ukraine reminds us Syrians of when Russia initially intervened in Syria, under the pretext of fighting terrorists. That was a lie, it came to occupy our country,” Fared al-Mahool, an independent journalist and photographer covering the humanitarian crisis in Syria, told The New Arab.
In 2015, Russia intervened on the side of the Syrian regime, nominally to combat what it called “terrorists” in Syria. In reality, Syrian civilians have comprised the vast majority of the Russian military’s targets in Syria. Rights groups have consistently denounced Moscow for targeting hospitals, bakeries and other civilian centres, though Moscow denies ever having done so.
Russia’s intervention turned the tide of Syria’s civil war against the rebels and enabled the regime to reconquer much of the country.
“[In Syria] the international community has seen the crimes of Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] for the past ten years and they haven’t done anything besides release statements. Now, the exact same thing is happening in Ukraine – the international community is impotent, just releasing statements and imposing sanctions,” al-Mahool said.
A red line unenforced, a military emboldened
In 2012, then-US President Barack Obama warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons against his own people would be a “red line” that would prompt US military intervention. In 2013, the Syrian regime did just that, used chemical weapons against Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds.
Ultimately, Obama walked back from his red line, putting military strikes on Syria up to a congressional vote – which failed. The Assad regime went on to use chemical weapons on its own people more than 300 more times.
“That infamous red line in 2013 and Obama’s refusal to take it head on … was a huge sign for Putin that some things are going to be allowed. Less than a year later [in 2014], he invaded Ukraine for the first time,” Rime Allaf, Syrian-born political analyst and member of the advisory council for the Middle East Insitute’s Syria Program, told The New Arab.
Despite the atrocities of Syria’s civil war on full view, with smartphones providing unprecedented documentation of war crimes in real time, no international power stepped in to protect civilians in Syria. Instead, Western powers relied heavily on diplomatic tools, such as sanctions and UN resolutions, to punish the Assad regime and Russia.
The US has sanctioned a raft of individuals and institutions in Syria and Russia in connection with war crimes in Syria since 2011, with little effect on the behaviour on either actor.
“Sanctions have always been the convenient and pretty much cost free way for the West … to respond to crimes against humanity, war crimes and digressions from international law and order,” Allaf said. She added that these “condemnations, thoughts and prayers” alone only embolden authoritarian actors like Russia.
The US and the EU have threatened “full-scale” sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and have already began to take steps such as halting the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe.
These sanctions look as if they will be more wide-ranging than those imposed on Russia for its involvement in Syria. However, some analysts suggest that Putin has already factored in the cost of sanctions into his expeditions into Ukraine.
“Sanctions are not a problem for Russia. On the contrary, they are a medal that the Russian government press constantly shows to the public,” Ruslan Trad, an author and Syria and Russia analyst, told The New Arab.
He added that while Russia cares about its natural gas sales to Europe – it supplies the continent some 40% of its gas needs – it has a “growing market in Asia.”
"Syria was not only a training ground for weaponry, but also for political and information tactics. Since 2015, Russia has perfected the use of misinformation to avoid responsibility for civilian casualties and create pretexts for its military actions"
Syria as a testing ground for weapons … and tactics
Russia has used its intervention in Syria as a training ground for its fighter pilots and as an exhibition for its domestic defence industry. Since 2015, it has tested “over 320 types of weapons” in Syria, the Russian Minister of Defence said – and its defence sales have profited handsomely as a result.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Civil Defence known as the White Helmets issued a statement of solidarity, saying it “pained [them] to know the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians.”
Syria was not only a training ground for weaponry, but also for political and information tactics. Since 2015, Russia has perfected the use of misinformation to avoid responsibility for civilian casualties and create pretexts for its military actions.
In Syria, in what experts have said is a Russian-led disinformation campaign, the White Helmets have been cast as agents of Al-Qaeda. The chemical attacks the Assad regime carried out have been portrayed as “false flag” operations carried out by crisis actors, meant to give a pre-text to Western powers to intervene in Syria. Russia has warned on multiple occasions that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters in northwest Syria are preparing to launch a chemical weapons attack – despite there being no indication that these groups have chemical weapons in the first place.
In Ukraine, analysts have said Russia is employing similar tactics.
In the run up to its invasion, the Kremlin released videos of what it says were Ukrainian “provocateurs” attempting to attack Russian soldiers and of corpses killed by Ukrainian shelling. Western politicians have denounced these as attempts by Moscow to create a pretext for further encroachment into Ukrainian territory.
The same journalists who have helped promote Russian misinformation in Syria have also echoed its narrative in Ukraine. Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger famous for her support of Assad and her story that White Helmets are harvesting and selling organs from Syrian civilians, has been active in amplifying Russian rhetoric in Ukraine.
Eva Bartlett, another journalist who claimed that the White Helmets use crisis actors in its videos, has also claimed that the Ukraine is orchestrating a genocide against the people of the breakaway region of the Donbas. This discourse has been a key part of the Russian justification to invade Ukraine.
"This is the Ukraine the media won’t tell you about, a state that can slaughter and maim civilians in the DPR and destroy their homes at will without repercussions.”-- Independent Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett— Carl Sordoni (@sordo44) February 22, 2022
The effect of such misinformation in Syria has been wide-ranging, from the defamation of White Helmet founder James Le Mesurier, to a lack of popular support for measures against actors who have committed war crimes, like Assad.
The narrative in Ukraine is still being written, as Russia and Ukraine wage their own battle in the information sphere at the same time that its troops advance into Ukraine.
As the history of the last ten years in Syria show, the outcome of this information warfare can be almost as deadly as the war being fought offline.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou