A day after visiting the city of Bucha, where evidence of Russian atrocities targeting civilians continues to surface, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the United Nations Security Council against inaction, claiming the current war in Ukraine would not have happened had atrocities in Syria and elsewhere been opposed years ago. As the Russian-led war in Ukraine enters its third month, the war in Syria and Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime through the brutal repression of Syrian civilians is increasingly referenced in relation to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In making sense of these references, this article will examine comparable strategic analyses and the shared struggle of both peoples.
For those familiar with the Syrian case, the Russian brutality exhibited in Ukraine is not new. Syrians around the world identify with the Ukrainian struggle and echo the sentiment that they know what Putin can do in Ukraine, because it has been done in Syria. With now over a decade of experience resisting, and responding to the brutality at the hands of Assad’s regime and its Russian backer, Syrian civil society, humanitarian organizations, and human rights advocates have shared their expertise in medical aid, emergency response, war crimes documentation, and daily survival in conflict areas with Ukrainians. Meanwhile, analysts have recognized the “Syria playbook,” a set of strategies that Putin developed in Syria and is now implementing in Ukraine. Some of the key tactics used in both countries are sieges, targeting civilian infrastructure, using indiscriminate weapons, negotiating humanitarian corridors, deploying foreign fighters, coercive mediation, and disinformation campaigns.
A limited goal in Syria for large-scale destruction
In 2015 Russia began a campaign in Syria, marking the beginning of its ongoing military intervention in the country. Russia has a relatively limited goal for its involvement: Upholding Assad rather than ensuring lasting peace within a unified country. Russia sustains the conflict in Syria with tangible benefits to itself, without jeopardizing its broader foreign policy agenda. With limited investment of resources and relatively minimal risk, intervention in Syria boosted Russia’s wartime economy and helped develop its military modernization program, both of which are now in effect in Ukraine.
Following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russia set a military modernization program with little opportunity to implement its new agenda in conflict zones. It is in this regard that military involvement in Syria plays a critical role in providing an opportunity to combat test a range of equipment, with 320 weapons reportedly used during the conflict. This includes using, or enabling Assad’s regime in using, indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions, chemical weapons, and vacuum bombs which increase civilian casualties and facilitate large-scale devastation. Utilizing tactics that maximize civilian toll serves the role of undermining the morale of opposition and demonstrates that even non-combatants are deemed potential targets.
Similar Russian tactics in Syria and Ukraine
At the onset of the Russian invasion, many believed Ukraine’s proximity and perceived “familiarity” to Russia would prevent the brutality exhibited in Syria––yet that has quickly proved untrue. Cluster munitions have been widely used in civilian areas in Ukraine, including Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. Reflecting on the Syrian case has now raised concerns over whether Russia would use chemical weapons in Ukraine, as unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons attacks have already circulated.
In Syria, sieges have been a staple of Russian strategy, coupled with indiscriminate aerial bombardment and the negotiation of human corridors. In Mariupol, Ukraine’s port city, such patterns are replicated, as Russia’s siege is ongoing and evidence of war crimes continues to mount. Some have compared the siege of the city to that of Aleppo, in reference to the 2016 Russian-backed siege against Syria’s largest city. Civilian structures—including hospitals, schools, and religious institutions—are key targets of Russian aerial bombardment. While the intentional targeting of civilians is illegal under international law, reports of the targeting of civilian infrastructure was quickly apparent with the bombing of a Ukrainian hospital early into the war. During the siege of Mariupol, human corridors were negotiated with the intention of allowing aid into the besieged area and evacuating civilians, though ensuring cooperation from Russia has proved difficult. In Syria, these human corridors were oftentimes not honored, with civilians caught in the siege labeled as “potential combatants.”
The Syrian war continues to provide combat experience and regional expertise to Russian military professionals, allowing them to expand their proficiency and improve military decision-making, develop tactical skills, and generally gain significant operational experience in a conflict environment. Reports claim that a total of 63,012 Russian military personnel received combat experience in Syria, including 25,738 ranking officers, 434 generals, and 4,349 artillery and rocket specialists. About 85% of Russian military commanders are said to have gained experience in Syria; they are now once again deployed in Ukraine, alongside other military personnel. Most prominent among them is General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the former commander of the Russian campaign in Syria, who is now leading the invasion of Ukraine.
A sustained wartime economy
An added benefit to Russia’s weapons testing and ongoing conflict has been sustaining a wartime economy. Since Russian intervention in Syria, the CEO of JSC Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state organization for defense-related exports, reported the company signed contracts with 53 countries, worth around $15 billion. This included contracts or talks for such contracts with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Niger, countries where Russia’s arms exports were previously limited or nonexistent. Though it is difficult to accurately measure this “marketing” strategy’s effect on existing arms sales, early estimates projected a $7 billion increase, with the lack of transparency around Russian arms sales inevitably presenting obstacles to properly verify these numbers.
In addition to the demonstration of weapons in Syria for export sale, Russian private military companies, such as Wagner, have also tapped into the Syrian market. While playing a crucial role in deploying ground forces, Wagner has exploited the war-torn country to recruit Syrians to serve as mercenaries in other conflicts where it is present, including Libya and the Central African Republic. There are now reports of Syrians being recruited to fight in Ukraine, though there is no evidence on the ground of their deployment. The United Kingdom has also recently sanctioned the group, after it was reportedly tasked with assassinating President Zelenskyy.
In both conflicts, Russian aggression has in effect achieved, or attempts to achieve, the suppression of democracy, disruption of peace, and violation of human dignity. Yet, the parallels between the Syrian and the Ukrainian cases are highly imperfect, with variations across a number of factors, including Russia’s objectives and military involvement, as well as the reactions of the international community and Russia’s domestic population. Still, reflecting on the Syrian case offers insight into ongoing events in Ukraine. It forces the international community and analysts of both conflicts, to re-evaluate Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria and the international community’s lack of response to it.
Pursuing Assad and Putin’s crimes in Syria
As many argue that Russian aggression would not have been replicated had it been opposed in Syria, we must pose the question: What now? In light of their own tragedy, Syrians have rallied with Ukrainians against a shared aggressor and recognize the potential to achieve a semblance of justice for Syrians should Putin be held accountable for his crimes in Ukraine.
The international community has taken measures to isolate Russia on the world stage through the implementation of sanctions (targeted and otherwise), expulsion from international bodies, and widespread condemnation.The true impact of these measures against Russia in curbing violence are contested, yet it maintains that Russia will not lead normal relations so long as current aggression on Ukraine persists.
As the Syrian conflict continues to offer an insight into the Ukrainian one, atrocities perpetrated by Russia and the Syrian regime have gone largely unpunished. While Putin was not held accountable for Syria, what measures were taken to isolate Assad’s regime are now fading. The war crimes committed by the Syrian state, and enabled by Russia, are occasionally discussed, while others are intentionally covered up as there are continued efforts to normalize and rehabilitate the regime. Only a few weeks after releasing a statement supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Assad made a historic visit to the UAE, his first visit to an Arab state since 2011, as the regime continues a larger campaign to re-enter the international community. This follows efforts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League, lift or ease sanctions against the country, and return displaced and refugee populations to regime-controlled areas, often at great risk.
The human costs of the Syrian conflict have already demonstrated the dangers of passivity regarding Putin and Assad’s aggression. Syria should not be viewed as a past conflict by which to predict Russia’s actions. Rather, it should be understood as an ongoing one, with continued, unaddressed, violence toward the Syrian people at the hands of the Assad regime and Russia. As attempts to curb Putin’s aggression in Ukraine continue, so must measures to hold him and Assad accountable for their crimes in Syria be pursued.