Putin targets Ukrainian civilians because he could in Syria

The Syrianisation of the Ukraine war is no coincidence. Russia got away with it once — and believes it will again.

Hundreds of graves, mostly unnamed, where the remains of civilians killed by Russian forces are buried, close to a town cemetery near Brovary, east of the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Hundreds of graves, mostly unnamed, where the remains of civilians killed by Russian forces are buried, close to a cemetery near Brovary, east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, are pictured on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]

In 2015, when Russia began its military intervention in Syria, it seemed that the barbarism in the region was too significant for the international community to turn away from.

Abundant reports by United Nations commissions, as well as accountability, human rights, and humanitarian organisations, documented war crimes with pictures, videos, and firsthand testimony. The world has watched countless incidents of missiles destroying hospitals or mutilated Syrian children covered in dust and blood being pulled from the rubble of destroyed apartment buildings.

By some accounts, the documentation of war crimes in Syria is the strongest evidence since the crimes of the Nazis in World War II. And yet, the international community failed to act. No one was held accountable. Syria was a test case for the resolve of the world on how to respond to a brutal aggressor that justifies attacking civilians and hospitals. Inaction in Syria gave Putin the green light to start another brutal war to swallow another big chunk of territory from his neighbour, Ukraine.

“The people of Syria received no adequate international protection, and this gave the Kremlin and its accomplices a sense of impunity,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in March. “Russian bombs were destroying Syrian cities in the same way as they are our Ukrainian cities. It is in this impunity that a significant part of the Kremlin’s current aggressiveness lies.”

He is right. It is clear that Putin, for whom the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant related to crimes in Ukraine, is applying the same tactics he used in Syria in this latest war. Since last autumn, we have witnessed a new phase of the Russian invasion — a Syrianisation of the war, in which Russia is primarily targeting one group: civilians.

This new phase started with the appointment of General Sergei Surovikin, known for his brutal bombing campaigns in Syria, as the overall commander of Russia’s so-called special military operation in early October. The 56-year-old Air Force general oversaw the relentless targeting of clinics, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria in 2019, an effort to break opponents’ will and send refugees fleeing to Europe via neighbouring Turkey.

The 11-month campaign was reported to have shown callous disregard for the lives of the roughly three million civilians in the area. Similarly to what it did in Syria and Chechnya, Russia is implementing a well-tested strategy of attrition against civilians to force Ukraine to surrender. Putin’s propaganda machine labelled all Syrian civilians in opposition-controlled areas as “terrorists,” just as he falsely labelled his invasion of Ukraine a de-Nazification campaign. The sieges of Mariupol and now Bakhmut are reminiscent of the sieges of Aleppo, Ghouta and Homs.

I am reminded of the endless calls over the past 12 years for humanitarian protection of Syrian civilians from the raining hell of Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and Russian heat-seeking missiles, all of which landed on deaf ears. More than 63,000 Russian military personnel have “received combat experience” in Syria since September 2015.

Russia’s defence minister boasted that they tested “more than 320 types of different weapons” in their military operations in Syria that killed 87,500, according to Russian sources. Even hospitals were not spared. The Russian war in Syria targeted doctors, hospitals, and clinics, depriving communities of healthcare. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 859 attacks on healthcare centres since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, resulting in 101 deaths and 136 injuries.

Between April 29 and mid-September 2019, as Russian and Syrian government forces assaulted the last rebel pocket in Northwest Syria, 54 hospitals and clinics in opposition territory were attacked. According to Syrian human rights groups, Russia committed more than 335 massacres and at least 1,083 attacks on vital civilian facilities, including 201 attacks on schools and 190 attacks on medical facilities. These killed at least 20,944 Syrian civilians from air raids using illegal weapons like cluster incendiary and “thermobaric” vacuum bombs.

On a medical mission to northern Syria after a series of Russian strikes on hospitals and cities in January 2020, I met Dr Loubna Saad, a local paediatrician displaced with her family from Maarat al-Numan. Saad described the horrifying conditions of evacuating her city, where most people live in temporary shelters and lack necessities. Diesel fuel for heating is scarce and expensive; families are burning plastic bags and household goods to warm their families. “Children are traumatised,” she told me. “I have treated children with severe malnutrition and women who can’t nurse their children due to psychological trauma and lack of good nutrition.” Similar stories and events unfolded in Ukraine last winter.

With Russia’s tacit support, the al-Assad regime used prohibited chemical weapons, including nerve gas and choking agents, more than 300 times against its population. Russia prevented the United Nations Security Council from investigating these war crimes and assigning responsibility, and al-Assad has continued to evade the International Criminal Court.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Health has asked my organisation MedGlobal to help with chemical weapons preparedness. There were reports that Russia may use such prohibited weapons against Ukrainian cities, mirroring what happened in Syria. The Biden administration also warned that Russia may deploy chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine – and now, Russia has announced it will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

As in Syria and almost all hospitals worldwide, Ukrainian hospitals are poorly equipped to respond to chemical warfare agents. They lack antidotes, detection devices, proper personal protection devices, decontamination units, and medical protocols for treatment.

When Russia first intervened militarily in Syria, then-President Barack Obama assumed that Putin would be dragged into a Syrian quagmire. He let al-Assad off the hook in 2013 after he crossed America’s declared red line and used nerve gas, paving the way for the Syrian president to continue using chemical weapons for the next five years. Putin interpreted Obama’s hesitation as a green light to invade Ukraine, first in 2014 and then in 2022.

US administrations under Donald Trump and Joe Biden have essentially continued with the Obama approach, allowing Russia to destroy Syrian cities, driving millions of civilians to become refugees or internally displaced and strengthening al-Assad’s dictatorship.

The Syrian regime should be held accountable for its crimes against its civilians. The Biden administration must lead efforts to refer Syrian leaders to the International Criminal Court. Unless they face justice, it will be impossible for 6.5 million refugees to return safely to their cities and neighbourhoods. The Biden administration should also use its diplomatic levers to stop the trend of countries normalising relations with the al-Assad regime, without any concessions.

And finally, the US should declare what is happening in Ukraine as a genocide. There is abundant evidence that Russia is trying to erase Ukrainian identity and culture, deporting thousands of Ukrainian children and placing them in re-education camps.

Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people understand the connection between what happened in Syria and what is happening to their homeland, as do many US leaders, including several members of Congress. But the big question remains: Will Washington act on that understanding?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.