Putin PTSD: For Syrians, Russia's invasion of Ukraine triggers both solidarity and trauma
The name Major Krasnoyartsev might mean little to most people, but to Syrians he was one of the many Russian pilots responsible for bombing the schools, hospitals, marketplaces and civilian neighbourhoods of Aleppo back in 2016, during the brutal fall of that once free city.
Indeed, such was the efficiency of Krasnoyartsev at bombarding Aleppo, the pilot even got a photo opportunity with Bashar al-Assad at Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia for his "heroism".
Though the veracity of the pilot’s identity has been questioned, it is thought that Krasnoyartsev’s Su-24 fighter-bomber was shot down in Chernihiv, just north of Kyiv. This prompted a wave of celebrations among anti-Assad Syrians.
One must always to grasp for the truth, but whether this Krasnoyartsev is the same as the one who terrorised Aleppo somewhat misses the point of the Syrian reaction to it.
Though exact numbers are hard to determine, it is thought that since 2015 Russia has been responsible for the murder of at least 18,000 Syrians, including 2,000 children, not to mention the millions it forced to flee.
"When Syrians see Russian aircraft shot down in Ukraine, they are essentially seeing vicarious justice visited upon the forces that so easily and proudly got away with raining terror upon them"
When Syrians see Russian aircraft shot down in Ukraine, they are essentially seeing vicarious justice visited upon the forces that so easily and proudly got away with raining terror upon them – terror that annihilated their families, houses, neighbourhoods and dreams, forcing them into the bitterly precarious life of a refugee.
Russia stunned the world by invading Ukraine on Thursday. Syrians say Russia's aggression was perfected in Syria, and emboldened by the international community's inaction, writes @will_christou https://t.co/S82tZ7C9qv— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) February 28, 2022
As Hussein Akoush, who was cleansed from Aleppo during the massive Russian bombing campaign that led to its fall, told the Telegraph: "I thought those pilots would ultimately get away with their crimes ... But the Ukrainians have avenged for Syrians … Not only killing pilots and capturing others alive, but by exposing their participation in Syria", adding that "Russian warplanes killed my family members."
This is the dynamic through which many Syrians see the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion – as a continuation of their own unsuccessful struggle against Putin’s imperialism.
Of course, there is a justified sense of bitterness that the global reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not matched during Russia’s participation in what many consider to be a genocidal war waged against Syrians.
Syrians could not shoot down pilots like Krasnoyartsev because Barack Obama ensured they did not have the weapons necessary to do so – the same weapons Ukraine has in abundance. The fact Syrians seeking justice for the crimes visited upon them by Russia must live vicariously through Ukrainian victories against Russia is perverse.
But the perversity lies with the world that abandoned Syria to Russia – not with Ukrainians who have the solidarity of anti-Assad Syrians – calculating that Putin genocidally triumphing in some Middle Eastern backwater could be swept under the sand.
But the link between Syria and Ukraine goes further than solidarity.
There is considerable evidence that, as was the case when Russia joined the UAE and French-backed effort to overthrow the democratic UN-recognised government in Libya, pro-Assad Syrians are being recruited as cannon fodder to fight in Ukraine.
Though the exterminationist element of Assad’s forces might jump at the chance to spill Ukrainian blood, Russia has created a veritable production line of cannon fodder in Syria – aid in the destruction of the country, leading to an economic catastrophe wherein many Syrians face the threat of starvation, and then offer them $US 200-per-month (a major sum for the average Syrian) to fight Ukrainians.
"But lessons gleamed from the Russian intervention in Aleppo could potentially be vital. If Russia unleashes the ‘Aleppo doctrine’ on Kyiv, not only could the city fall, but we could see destruction, death and refugees on a scale similar to that of Aleppo"
Syrians, even pro-Assad ones and even if they did not realise it yet, have the same enemy as Ukrainians.
But lessons gleamed from the Russian intervention in Aleppo could potentially be vital. If Russia unleashes the "Aleppo doctrine" on Kyiv, not only could the city fall, but we could see destruction, death and refugees on a scale similar to that of Aleppo.
Though we are currently seeing Ukrainian victories against Russian assaults, it is worth noting that Syrians had similar, if methodologically different, victories at staving off the fall of Aleppo. Who can forget children burning tires in the streets of Aleppo to obscure the vision of Russian and Baathist pilots?
But where Russia found success was not solely in the massive advantage its air force provided against Syrian rebels with no anti-aircraft mechanisms. Victory came in its ability to besiege the city, controlling and thus cutting off humanitarian and Turkish military aid to the rebels.
Though many people have claimed Russia imagined a blitzkrieg in Ukraine, we have seen in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo where this doctrine was birthed, that Russia is willing to combine massive city-flattening aerial assaults with more protracted and attritional means to achieve victory – this could mean slowly encircling and besieging Kyiv and other major population centres, as they did with Aleppo.
Thus, the Russian-proposed safe corridors in Ukraine ought to be looked upon with suspicion – in Syria similar ploys became synonymous with ethnic cleansing, the Russian-Baathist weaponisation of humanitarian aid against both rebels and millions of civilians, as well as, the regrouping of military forces, and more generally, Russia asserting its control over the country.
We have already seen Russia attacking Ukrainian civilians fleeing "safe corridors" it allegedly agreed to. The logic here is to demonstrate that Russia is in control: Ukrainians will stay or remain and live or die according to the will of Russia.
It might be true that Russia underestimated Ukrainian resistance and global support for it, but it could also be true that Russia still has the "Aleppo doctrine" up its sleeve for Ukrainians.
"Ukrainians, as Syrians did, find themselves fighting not just an unwanted war against Russia, but one of the great world-historic battles for human liberty against a tyrannical Russian regime"
If that moment does come, as it did in Syria, one might as well abandon hope of the US or NATO intervening to stop what happened in Syria happening in Ukraine. This confrontation is not going to come.
Ukrainians, as Syrians did, find themselves fighting not just an unwanted war against Russia, but one of the great world-historic battles for human liberty against a tyrannical Russian regime that has openly advertised itself as a bastion of illiberalism and imperialist mastery.
As can be seen by the reaction to the alleged capture of Krasnoyartsev, Anti-Assad Syrians, in a very visceral and traumatic sense, understand this.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.