Russia’s intervention in Syria provided clues for Ukraine war

BEIRUT — Ahmad Rakan, a Syrian rebel leader, has closely tracked news about Russia’s invasion Ukraine .. Two years ago, his home was destroyed by a Russian strike in the village of Bassi. This occurred during a long-running Syrian government offensive supported by Moscow’s firepower.

“We more than anyone else feel their pain,” he said of Ukrainian civilians currently under Russian bombardment. For seven years Syrians such as Rakan witnessed firsthand Russia’s military might. It struck strongholds of opposition, brokered massive surrender agreements, and sent military police to their country. This rendered it practically a Russian protectorate in the Mediterranean.

Observers say Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria and the impunity with which it was met emboldened Vladimir Putin. It gave Putin a new Middle East base from which he could exert global power and opened the door to his attack against Ukraine, they claim.

“There is no doubt that the Russian intervention in Ukraine is an accumulation of a series of Russian military interventions in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs at the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Putin believes that America’s decline is underway and China is growing in power. Europe, however, is divided and preoccupied by its own internal problems. So he intervened.

Moscow’s 2015 decision to join the war in Syria was its first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse. This helped President Bashar al-Assad and turned the tide in the war against him. It also allowed the Syrian leader to brutally take back control of large parts of Syria. Russian airstrikes frequently hit schools, hospitals and markets in indiscriminate ways. Anna Borshchevskaya is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute who focuses on Russia’s Middle East policy. She said that Russia used a multi-domain approach to Syria. This included long-range precision weapons, large-scale bombing campaigns and cyber warfare.

Deploying its air power “has come to define Russia’s evolving way of war and Syria was an especially important illustration of this development,” she said.

Moscow was also a diplomatic force in Syria. It made arrangements with the West, which forced an implicit consent to its intervention. It created joint patrols with NATO member Turkey which backed Syrian rebels, to enforce truces in some areas. It reached agreements with Israel, which allowed it to launch airstrikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria. It set up a so-called deconfliction line with the U.S. to prevent mishaps between American and Russian planes flying in Syria’s skies.

At the same time it tried to defend Assad in international affairs, dismissing as fabrications Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and barrel bombs. Russia also launched a soft-power campaign in Syria. In some areas, festivals were put on to popularize Russian culture, Russian national songs were played on Syrian television, self-serving propaganda was churned out and hot meals were served to civilians.

Max, a dual Syrian-Ukrainian national who hails from Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, recalled working for a week as a social media troll disseminating the “truth” about Russia’s positive actions in Syria. An office was set up at a local university and Max worked with other Russian-speaking Syrians.

A member of Assad’s Alawite ruling sect, he said he and others in his hometown were grateful when Russia intervened militarily in 2015, particularly as Islamic extremists had been approaching the area. “Then Russians arrived and the frontline was pushed back,” he said to The Associated Press over a telephone call from Ukraine. He is currently stuck in an Airbnb located in a residential neighborhood of Kyiv.

Max, who is now working for an international organization in Lebanon, had flown to Ukraine to update his personal documents when he became trapped there by Russia’s invasion. His full name was not to be disclosed for his security.

Max no longer believes in the Russian narrative. While many in Max’s hometown of Syria support Russia in its war against Ukraine, Moscow is continuing to make sophisticated disinformation efforts about the invasion.

Images coming out of Ukraine, including the harrowing mass flight of civilians, are stirring intense and conflicting emotions among Syrians at home and refugees across the globe.

Resentment runs deepest in the northwest province of Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held bastion, where Russian airstrikes continue to this day. The White Helmets, an opposition civil defense organization, condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine in a Monday statement.

“It pains us immensely to know that the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians,” it said, lamenting what it said has been a lack of support from the international community in holding Russia to account in Syria and elsewhere.

“Instead of standing up for international norms, such as those against the use of chemical weapons, the international community has tried to find ways to cooperate with Russia and to this day considers Russia a willing and essential partner in diplomacy,” it said.

Borshchevskaya said the lesson Putin took from Syria was that “the West will not oppose his military interventions” and it gave him a success to build on.

“Appetite comes with eating, and with each intervention he has grown increasingly more brazen, culminating in the tragedy we now see unfolding in Ukraine,” she said. “Just as what happened in Syria did not end in Syria, what is happening in Ukraine will not end in Ukraine.”

Rakan now lives in a tent with his wife and three kids near the Turkish border, where he runs a car spare parts shop. According to him, he believes that a Russian victory in Ukraine will have positive consequences for the opposition from Syria.

“We ask God to grant victory to the Ukrainian people and that the war against Russia will bring an end to Russia,” he stated.

“Maybe they (Ukrainians) can achieve the victory that was not achieved in Syria.”

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