Could Putin’s Involvement in Syria Have Foreshadowed the Russian Invasion in Ukraine?


Syrian refugees in Lebanon staying in small cramped quarters.

Loor Elbedour

Last week marked the 11-year anniversary of the devastating and still ongoing conflict in Syria. Rather than moving forward and finding a solution to this conflict, we instead see parallels between tactics used in the Syrian Civil War and in the current Russian invasion in Ukraine. 

After the spark that ignited the Syrian War in March of 2011, opposing forces of the regime began to take control of regions in Syria quickly. As the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began to come out of Homs, the regime began to lose territory rapidly. Seeing his dictatorship nearing the end, President Bashar Al-Assad asked ally Vladimir Putin for military aid for Assad’s struggling forces against the freedom fighters and pro-democracy citizens, which he deemed as “terrorists and rebels,” deserving of death and destruction.

On September 30th, 2015, Moscow deployed its first airstrike against the “rebels and terrorists”, and over the course of three months, 2,371 innocent Syrian civilians were killed.

When NBC’s Bill Neely asks Assad about the millions of Syrians–his citizens and people–that were displaced, he said that they were simply “caught in a crossfire” and showed no remorse for the death and displacement of millions.

Substantive evidence proves Putin and Assad committed numerous war crimes against the Syrian people and caused mass chaos and destruction in Syria without having to answer to anyone. They forcibly caused mass bloodshed by indiscriminate shelling, massacres, crimes of torture, and sexual violence. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that in 2014, a defector and former forensic photographer for the Military Police of the Syrian Regime revealed pictures of detainees that died in regime custody. The defector, code-named Caesar, spoke about having to see “bodies showing signs of torture,” and photographing them as a career. He said that before the war, “the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill.” Caesar’s photos reported deliberate torture and death conducted by the Syrian regime. The world watched as hundreds and thousands of Syrians were being murdered daily and as kids’ childhoods were being stolen. However, its not shocking for things such as these to occur in “uncivilized” places.

In November 2015, many reported Russia beginning to deploy ground troops to battle in Syria. In December of 2015, Putin warned that he would scale up the military intervention in Syria; that same year 4,408 Syrians were killed.

In the fall of 2016, the Sakhour Hospital in Aleppo was bombed by Russia at least four times. Currently, we see this parallel on March 10th, 2022, as the Maternity and Children’s hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine was targeted and demolished by Russian airstrikes which resulted in 17 casualties and three dead children. Al-Jazeera interviewed Rami Al-Fares, an X-ray doctor who lived in Syria for the duration of the war. The memories came rushing back for Al-Fares when he saw the news highlighting the bombing of the Maternity Hospital in Mariupol. He said, “It was just like what we went through. The same tactics and scenes.”

Vladimir Putin utilized chemical weapons, tested new jets, cruise missiles, air strikes and other weapons in Syria. Russian forces perfected their military combat techniques, gained experience, and are now inflicting this power against Ukrainian troops. Defense News says, “Putin singled out the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Su-57 fighter jet, the S-500 air defense system and the Armata battle tank.”

Currently, we see the same destruction causing air strikes and pain-inflicting bullets being used in the invasion Ukraine. While chemical weapons have not been used in Ukraine yet, we can’t say Moscow isn’t waiting for the moment to use them since they have already utilized them in Syria.

Putin’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War turned the outcome of the war in favor of the oppressive Assad regime. While Putin claims that his aim was to hurt the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, what he did was much worse. By keeping Assad in power, he further enabled a dictator who uses chemical weapons on his own people and broadened the already wide divide among Syrian families. The war was not simply Assad vs Freedom–it was multilayered; it became Syrian vs Syrian, Assadist vs Anti-Assad, ISIS vs Syrians, and Western powers vs Syria.

In the end, Syria was simply a pawn in Putin’s tactical playbook. He seemingly used Syria to pilot weaponry and test whether he would be able to get away with committing war crimes alongside Assad against the Syrian people. The Syrian cause became forgotten. The last air strike Moscow deployed was January 3, 2022 towards Idlib, Syria. This did not reach the front page of news outlets.

The fact that he may have gotten away with this so easily is why we see the same methods of destruction being utilized in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many believe that this invasion could’ve been stopped if Putin and Assad were held accountable.

Perhaps no group of people will understand the devastation happening in Ukraine better than the Syrians. However, many are having a hard time sympathizing with the Ukrainian refugee crisis after Western media has been accused of upholding a double standard. This was seen specifically when CBS News senior correspondent in Kyiv, Charlie D’Agata, compared the long lasting conflicts in the Middle East to that of Ukraine: “[Ukraine] is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” This comment was met with a lot of backlash and critics called D’Agata out for being desensitized towards devastating conflicts in the Middle East. On social media, especially on Twitter, many took to note the double standard and blatant racism being exposed since the war started. Another instance where western hypocrisy was made more defined was when French Journalist Philippe Corbé of France-based BFM TV said, “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

Another double standard was towards refugees. Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed with open arms in Europe, and the world is stepping up ready to assist; however, Syrian refugees did not receive the same warm welcome a few years ago, and even to this day. The Syrian Civil War produced over 12 million Syrian refugees who sought refuge in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. Just two years ago, on March 17, 2020 the HRW reported that Greek security forces in Athens “detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced [Syrian asylum seekers] back to Turkey.”

Syrian refugees reach the coastal waters of Lesbos in Greece, after having crossed from Turkey. (Georgios Giannopoulos)

In Turkey, the HRW reported that Turkish authorities have been “forcibly returning Syrians back to danger.”

In Lebanon, the HRW recently reported on the harsh and inhumane conditions of the Syrian refugee camps. Inadequate homes, hunger, freezing temperatures in the winter and flooding are just a few of the things that Syrians have had to endure since the start of the Syrian Civil War till present time.

Regardless, many Syrians do not want to see Ukraine’s suffering, and they also do not want to see the destruction they endured inflicted on anyone else. Former political prisoner, Syrian refugee, and Syrian human rights activist, Omar Alshogre says, “I may be Syrian but this month I am Ukrainian because I am human.”

Now more than ever, the world must stand with Syria AND Ukraine with solidarity in this battle for freedom and democracy.