Syrians recount horror under Russian air attacks

Al Jazeera talks to Syrians who endured Russian air strikes as Moscow tries to advance its invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian air force Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies
A Russian air force Mil Mi-17 helicopter flies over a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol in northeast Syria [File: AFP]

The footage of Russian missiles striking Ukrainian cities soon made the rounds in Syria, and Ahmad al-Khatib, a native of  Aleppo, was stunned by what he saw.

“He is going to go full Aleppo on Ukraine now, isn’t he?” al-Khatib, having lived through the days when the Syrian city was under intense attack, asked in shock. “It’s crazy that what we experienced a few years ago is being replayed almost frame by frame in Ukraine.”

Often seen as one of the most brutal battles in the Syrian civil war, pro-government forces retook the city of Aleppo from the rebels in 2016. That bloody offensive was made possible by Russia’s rounds of heavy aerial bombardment, including targeting non-combatant facilities such as hospitals.

Now, as Russian forces continue their invasion deeper into the heartland of Ukraine and launch more intense air strikes on urban areas, Syrians are recalling the horror from attacks orchestrated by the same military.

“There were bombs and blood everywhere, and you sleep to and wake up by the sounds of military jets flying over your head and then sounds of air strikes,” al-Khatib told Al Jazeera. “Houses were shaking, children were crying and we were all waiting for death.”

‘Don’t want to revisit’

Speaking from his apartment in Turkey where he moved in 2017, al-Khatib said while he was initially stunned by the Russian attack, he was not particularly surprised at what he saw.

“We have been telling the world over and over that [President Vladimir] Putin is committing crimes in Syria, and Putin is capable of much more than what is happening now,” he warned. “It could get very ugly.”

For years, Russia has used the war in Syria as its effective military training ground. By backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has stood firmly with the Kremlin on the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has tested his military capacity in Syria as well as the West’s response.

Following Putin’s entry into the Syrian war in 2015, Russian forces made their mark in nearly all rebel-held areas, bombing both military outposts and civilian areas. Putin launched a sweeping bombardment campaign to help al-Assad eradicate nearly all the opposition forces and turn the tide to regain control of much of the country.

Some fear a similar fate could befall Ukraine as Russian air attacks intensify and residents in major cities, including the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, frantically flee to neighbouring countries as the worst crisis in Europe since World War II continues to unfold.

“They used everything they could in Aleppo, and as much as I don’t want to see this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started using the same planes, bombs and missiles to target civilians in Ukraine,” said Mustafa al-Qaseem, a Syrian who used to live in Aleppo and now lives in Germany. “Even just reading the news from afar gives me chills – I don’t want to revisit those days.”

‘We faced them alone’

The war in Ukraine, just as the one in Aleppo, is being documented and shared on social media extensively. Syrians’ desperate pleas during the war, for the most part, went into a black hole.

Putin continued to act with relative impunity despite reports of his forces bombing hospitals, schools and other civilian areas – in clear violation of international law. The intensity of air strikes also reached a new height in Aleppo where Human Rights Watch has said that Russia and the Syrian government committed war crimes.

Now, in Ukraine, reports have shown Russian forces also bombing civilian areas in large cities, prompting fears that Putin might be picking up the old playbook he executed during the Syrian war.

“Years ago in Aleppo, Russia bombed and destroyed the city for months, and the same planes were killing us daily – we faced them alone,” Ahmed Abazeid, a Syrian from Aleppo, said. “The world showed solidarity with words and it ended with Putin’s victory and the displacement of people.

“I hope we won’t see the fate of Aleppo again in Kyiv.”

Empathy for Ukraine

In Syria, empathy towards Ukrainians is widespread as many experienced the ordeal of living under Russia’s intense air attacks. From offering to go to Ukraine to join Ukrainian fighting forces to putting up graffiti to show support, many Syrians say solidarity is unquestionable.

“How can I go to Ukraine and fight alongside the Ukrainian army? Is there a way? I’m ready,” Suheil Hammoud, a prominent figure among the Syrian opposition who now lives in Idlib, wrote on Twitter.

For others, to voice support for Ukraine is more than merely showing empathy – it’s “another form of justice”, according to al-Qaseem.

From Aleppo, where Russia carried out some of the most brutal air attacks, to Idlib, where Putin’s air force is still pounding villages – to closely monitor the war in Ukraine is to make up for the justice that has not been delivered to Syria, he said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred up global outrage – from some of the fiercest sanctions imposed on Putin and his oligarchs, to an outpouring of support for Ukraine from around the world. The attack on Ukraine has isolated Russia from the international community.

“I’m glad to see that the world is finally starting to pay attention to what Russia is doing,” al-Qaseem said. “It would be better if they also saw what they were and still are doing in Syria, but we hope he [Putin] could finally be held accountable so that at least another form of justice could be delivered to us Syrians.”

Source: Al Jazeera