Since the Russian army crossed the Ukrainian border on February 24 – launching an unprovoked invasion that most analysts had deemed highly unlikely – Ukrainians have received sympathy from across the world. The acts of solidarity abound: thousands of volunteers have travelled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help the refugees fleeing the war, donations continue to be made to the NGOs providing humanitarian aid to the war-torn country, and even fighters from other countries have joined the Ukrainian army in the defence of the cities under attack by the Russian military.
By Gabriel Huland
One of the most touching gestures of compassion for the Ukrainian people came from the Syrian Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets), the organization that has been working since 2014 to rescue, evacuate, and provide emergency care to Syrians under attack by the Assad regime and its Russian allies during the Syrian civil war. The group have produced videos explaining how to rescue survivors from damaged buildings and what to expect from the Russian army after an airstrike. The White Helmets also volunteered to send rescuers to Ukraine to help local civil defence teams.
Syrians know very well what it is like to be attacked by Russia. Since September 2015, when President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to intervene in the Syrian civil war, Syrians living in rebel-controlled areas have been subjected to thousands of airstrikes conducted by Russian airplanes. Russia has carried out more than 4,000 airstrikes in Syria, causing the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians. (I)
Putin decided to intervene in Syria after his friend, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, asked for help in 2015. The Syrian regime was experiencing setbacks, and the morale of its troops was in decline. Rebel brigades, by contrast, were converging into larger groups and making considerable progress on the ground. In March 2015, a coalition of groups, which included both secular and moderate Islamist brigades, had taken the city of Idlib from government control. In May, ISIS captured the city of Palmyra, and around that same time, the Free Syrian Army drove Assad forces out of important positions in southern Syria.
As a result, a number of analysts predicted that the fall of Assad was imminent. It was not the first time the Syrian dictator needed foreign help to hang on to power and contain the insurrection that had started in his country in March 2011: in 2013, the Lebanese Hezbollah sent thousands of combatants to fight alongside the Syrian army against the rebels.
An aspect of Russia’s actions in Syria, which we are seeing in Ukraine today, is the Russian military´s lack of differentiation between armed fighters and civilians. In Syria, Russian airstrikes hit markets, residential buildings, and hospitals indiscriminately. Despite Putin’s narrative that the Russian intervention in the Middle Eastern country was aimed at containing ISIS, most reports from journalists and grassroots activists on the ground reveal a different story. Russian bombs were hitting civilians in areas controlled by rebel factions other than ISIS, as these more moderate groups represented a greater threat to the Assad regime than the radical Salafist organization.
The claims that Russia deliberately attacked civilian infrastructures in Syria are corroborated by hundreds of videos and reports from different sources. For example, Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London, showed how Russian aircraft carried out an attack in February 2016 in al-Hamidiyah, Syria, that destroyed a hospital and killed dozens of people. (II)
Russia continues to attack rebel-controlled areas today, especially in the province of Idlib, where most remaining rebel groups are now concentrated. One of the most recent Russian airstrikes in the area occurred in January 2022, hitting a water pumping station, among other facilities.(III)
The Syrian case offers valuable insights about how the West is responding to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. As the invasion of Ukraine completes its first month, the world watches in disbelief the destruction of Ukrainian cities and the flight of desperate refugees to safety in Poland and other countries. Few analysts believed that the Russian president would order a full-scale invasion. Although it is extremely difficult to understand the mind of a dictator, most observers thought that Putin was bluffing and would never attack a country with so many cultural and historical ties with Russia.
As happened when Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, Western leaders are responding hesitantly to the Ukrainian invasion. In 2015, the “Western” response consisted of a few limited sanctions against Russian entities and individuals. The strong rhetoric used then by US officials to condemn Russia did not translate into energetic measures to compel Putin to change his course of action. Such measures could include a comprehensive package of sanctions against Russia’s energy sector and the implementation of policies not only to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, but also (and most importantly) to accelerate the transition to clean energies. It could also include a substantial increase in the military support to Syrian rebels.
The Obama administration’s calculations were simple: Syria is not a country of strategic interest to the United States. It is neither a relevant US trading partner nor a country rich in the natural resources that are key to the US economy. The United States was not willing to pay the price of a large-scale military operation in the Middle East at a moment when it was disengaging from the region. President Obama was ready to “allow” Russia to keep Syria under its influence so his government could focus on other issues.
The situation now is different. In May 2014, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed; since then, the European Union has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner. The agreement, which came into existence in the aftermath of the ousting of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, marked Ukraine’s economic reorientation toward the EU and away from Russia. Nevertheless, even if the scale of the sanctions against Russia is larger now, neither the United States nor the European Union is willing to go all the way in sanctioning Russia or providing significant military support to the Ukrainian resistance. The fear of having to engage in a war with Russia, on the one side, and the EU’s dependence on Russian energy, on the other, largely explain this decision.
The current Russian strategy in Ukraine is unclear as is whether or not the Russian government has changed its objectives since the beginning of the invasion. What is certain is that the invasion is not going as planned. In Syria, the objective was evident: maintain a subservient government in power. Russia needed to help the Assad regime defeat an insurrection that started as a democratic revolution and evolved into a brutal civil war primarily as a result of the violence employed by the Syrian regime against peaceful demonstrators.
In Ukraine, Putin’s initial plan was to establish a puppet government. The Russian president’s statements that the “recognition” of Ukraine as a sovereign nation had been a mistake and that the current Ukrainian government is fascist testify to the idea that he planned to change the government in Kyiv. As of now, it is impossible to predict whether or not Putin will reach this goal. However, the Russian president will likely go forward with the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, either as new Russian provinces or subservient “autonomous” republics. The Russian government may also opt for inflicting as much damage as possible to the Ukrainian economic and military infrastructures to force the Ukrainian president to sign a “peace deal” in which Ukraine renounces any meaningful autonomy in the near future.
Putin’s argument that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) represents an existential threat to Russia’s security is also questionable. Although Ukraine established a partnership with NATO in the early 1990s, the country’s integration into the North Atlantic military alliance was not on the agenda. According to the Ukrainian sociologist Volodimir Artiukh, “Most of NATO’s expansion took place after the 2000s, during Putin’s tenure. And the first movements of this expansion did not give rise to any violent response from Russia. In recent years, there has been no significant expansion by NATO. And Ukraine was by no means close to becoming a member state. All political leaders express clearly: Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO in the near future. So, of course, this expansion contributed to increasing tension in the region, but it was not an immediate cause for the outbreak of conflict.” (IV)
Besides, some of NATO’s recent missions, such as the 2011 Libya intervention and operation Ocean Field – established in 2009 to fight pirates on the Somali coast – suggest that the Alliance acts exclusively in peripheral countries experiencing conflicts that represent a threat to the stability of the neoliberal order. For example, the Somali coast, which is located on a major shipping route, has strategic importance to global trade. Western countries will not tolerate disruption of the trade that goes through the Suez Canal. In Libya, the civil war was seen as a potential threat to the supply of oil and gas to Europe. Furthermore, Libya’s role in containing the flow of migrants to European countries concerned EU leaders, who pushed for intervention against Gaddafi. Despite Putin’s anti-Western narrative and Russia’s cyberattacks against the United States, the Russian government was not perceived as an existential threat to world stability until now.
The human and material destruction caused by the invasion of Ukraine will be incalculable. The death toll is already in the thousands, and some economists estimate that the Ukrainian economy will drop by more than 50% in 2022. The destruction in Syria is also irreversible. It will take decades for Syria to heal and re-emerge from a conflict that has persisted for more than 11 years. With almost a million deaths, millions of internally and externally displaced citizens, and hundreds of thousands of disappeared people, Syria is now a disfigured shadow of the country that it once was. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children have lost their childhood, families, and education and are now traumatized by a horrible war.
The fate of Ukraine will be similar, although there is a difference between how the United States, the European Union, and most international organizations deal with a war waged in the Middle East in a Muslim-majority country and one waged in Europe. Despite these differences, which can be seen in the amount of media coverage received by the Ukrainian conflict and the mobilization of NATO countries to protect their borders, the so-called international community has again failed to prevent a war. As is the case in Syria, the future of Ukraine lies to a great extent in the resilience of its people.