Watching the news on Ukraine with my Syrian friends, Essam and Majed, both refugees now living in a depressed dormitory town in North Lanarkshire, we all winced as the Russian shells crashed into Kharkiv and Mariupol. Essam looked at me, shrugging: “It’s Aleppo all over again. He will destroy these cities in the same way. If you guys had done something then, you wouldn’t be fighting Putin here!”
What lessons, then, did Putin learn in Syria that encouraged him in this latest venture?
Lesson 1: Kick them when they’re down
Essam’s sentiment echoed the remark of Wael, a renegade Syrian colonel and co-founder of the Free Syrian Army, whom I met in Jordan in late 2013. We were recruiting for a psycho-social support and awareness-raising drama project for Syrian refugees at the behest of Oxfam. The drama workshops would lead to a new adaptation of Euripides’ great anti-war Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women. Wael’s wife and sister-in-law were interested in taking part, and we visited them in their sparse basement flat in a shabby part of Amman. Wael, a man with a humorous, empathetic face apologised for his appearance: “Please don’t get the wrong idea” he said, rubbing a hand over his stubbled cheeks, “I’m not a jihadist. I just haven’t shaved today.” Later he asked, “Do you know your Prime Minister Mr Cameron?” I admitted that I did. “Well, you can tell him that if he and the Americans had helped us right at the beginning, even up to the end of last year, we had Assad trapped. Now it is too late. All we needed was arms and money. But now…” A shadow passed over his face, “Your allies in the Gulf offer more money, and better arms, for their Islamist militias.” He did not need to spell it out. If the West wasn’t prepared to help the forces of liberalism and democracy, then others would step into the gap, backing those fighting for alternative values. The Saudis and Emiratis were not the only ones to notice that the West was passing on this one. Our failure to intervene let in others, Hezbollah and Iran, to save Assad. And, in the year following his successful annexation of Crimea, Putin also took the opportunity to sneak Russia back into the Middle East. Having crossed one red line, he and his ally were delighted to stampede across other red lines regarding the gassing of civilians, and indiscriminate bombing of rebel areas. Putin must be forgiven if he deduced that the West was in retreat.
Lesson 2: Be a winner
In 2013, I asked Wael if he would like to join our production of The Trojan Women. With a wry grin he replied, “I am acting in another drama in Deraa.” He was commanding the FSA in Deraa and slipped over the border to see his wife and children in Amman on a regular basis. The following year I persuaded him to act in our radio drama series “We Are All Refugees”, set in Amman and Jordan’s biggest refugee camp, Zaatari, for Radio Souriali and BBC Arabic. Wael was sadder now. The confidence in his revolution was ebbing away. “Colonel,” I began, “The part you’re playing will…” “I am not a colonel anymore. Just call me Wael.” He explained that he had resigned from the FSA which had splintered into local militias, its professional ethos bleeding away. “Now I am a worker in a plastics factory.” A year later, we met through another production – this time the first ever Arabic production of the musical Oliver! in which his daughter played a minor role. By then, Russia had joined the fight and ISIS was rampaging through Syria and Iraq. Wael ruefully remarked on the convenient appearance of ISIS to make Assad look good: “It is interesting that they both spend most of their energy fighting other rebel groups.” ISIS aside, he foresaw that Russia’s airpower had swung the war decisively in Assad’s favour: free from international hindrance, or aerial opposition, Putin’s air force obliterated rebel positions, reducing whole districts to rubble, and allowing the government forces, a hotchpotch of militias and terrified conscripts, to trundle remorselessly towards victory. Russia was back.
Lesson 3. No more Mr Nice Guy
At the start of the war, in 2011, it had taken the Colonel some months to defect from Assad’s Syrian Army. Wael knew he would have to leave when he was ordered to take his men onto the streets to shoot “foreigners and terrorists”, attempting to overthrow the Syrian Republic. Only they weren’t foreigners and terrorists. They were fellow Syrians. And when he did defect, his family home was bulldozed, their possessions destroyed. Since then, Wael has lived under a death sentence.
But the Kremlin poisoner doesn’t need to take lessons in ruthlessness from Assad. Both have been schooled in brutality from their early years, one in the Baath Party, the other in the KGB. Do dictators have their own rolodex of demise running through their heads? The Ceaucescus shot in a muddy yard? Mussolini hanging from a lamp post? Hitler with a revolver in the bunker? Saddam Hussein’s judicial execution? Ceasar hacked to death by his own legislators? The Arab Spring was, in the main, not so barbaric: Tunisia’s President Ali’s half turn of regret at the top of the aeroplane steps? Mubharak’s trials and imprisonment? However, the demise that allegedly haunts Putin is President Gaddafi’s “Game of Thrones” style dispatch, dragged from hiding in a drainage pipe. Assad’s instantaneous brutality in the face of protests suggests he feared something similar. Or perhaps Putin and Assad just couldn’t face the holding cells of The Hague, playing chess and squabbling about the washing up rota with other fallen “Big Men”. Putin might have learnt from Assad that you sacrifice everything to stay in the palace: half your country, half your population, your whole economy. Because if you can hang on, eventually your neighbours will have to come to terms with you. Diplomacy cannot tolerate a void.
Lesson 4: You really won’t miss them when they’re gone
The next time I saw Wael in person was in 2016 at the Aldi in Heidelberg, once more “the Colonel”; he had just completed his last, most important mission: the evacuation across the Aegean and Europe, by rubber dinghy, foot and bus of his wife, two young daughters, brother-in-law, and wheelchair bound mother-in-law, across the Aegean (sharing his location with us in a heart stopping moment halfway across). At the Austrian border he was asked his occupation: “Renegade Colonel in the Free Syrian Army.” The officer processing rose, clicked his heels, shook Wael’s hand and said, “Welcome to Austria. Germany is that way,” pointing to the door. Later at Heidelberg’s Camp Patrick Henry, a former US base turned refugee holding centre, I asked Wael if he would ever go back. He held his hand up above his head and twisted his neck, miming being hanged: “Assad,” he repeated the gesture, “Free Syrian Army,” and once more, “Daesh [ISIS]: they all hate me.”
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Like my Syrian friend Essam, once a prosperous Syrian international businessman, now a North Lanarkshire Uber Eats driver, or Mohammad, a tailor who was tortured just because he had the same surname as an anti-regime journalist, living in a Glasgow council block, or Sanaa, the teacher wife of an actual anti-regime writer – who was also tortured – now living in a Scottish village, Wael can never return to Syria. Millions more live in a hellish limbo as refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. None can go back – even if they weren’t active revolutionaries or were even pro-Regime, but whose homes had been destroyed in battle: all are treated with suspicion by Assad. Mind you, as Assad said about a year ago, the Syrian population is finally fully integrated with his regime. Of course they are. The people who are left behind in Syria have voted to put up with the Regime with their feet. Putin must be laughing at the bow wave of humanity his invasion is causing. Fewer Ukrainians to revolt against him. Refugees are the other guys’ problem, not yours.
Lessons that Putin may regret he has missed:
Never interrupt your enemy while they’re making a mistake
Assad benefited from a divided opposition. Putin’s invasion has so miraculously united the fractious Ukraine that someone suggested erecting Putin’s statute in Kyiv. Previously his occupation of Crimea and backing for the Donbass insurrection had undermined every government in Ukraine since 2014.
It’s the economy, stupid
Trashing your economy makes even your friends demonstrate against you. Assad endures demonstrations from the people he allegedly “saved”. Considering that the economy is what set Syria’s revolution off in the first place, Putin may discover that his Russian imperial dream comes at a price his population is not prepared to pay.
Don’t cheat at cards
As Talleyrand, the great French statesman, said of Napoleon’s kidnapping of the Spanish Royal family and stealing their throne by deceit: “If a gentleman commits follies, if he keeps mistresses, if he treats his wife badly, even if he is guilty of serious injustices towards his friends, he will be blamed no doubt, but if he is rich, powerful, and intelligent, society will treat him with indulgence. But if that man cheats at cards, he will be immediately banished from decent society and never forgiven.” Napoleon, Talleyrand and the courts of Europe felt, had cheated at cards with regards to the Spanish. As for Putin, he knows the UN doesn’t really do civil wars, except to police “peace lines” or distribute humanitarian aid. But for one sovereign nation to invade another is taboo. Putin may have persuaded himself that Ukraine “wasn’t a real country” and historically part of Russia, but, as he is learning fast, to the Western world, Putin has cheated at cards.
William Stirling is the Producer of the Trojan Women Project for refugees.