February 24 2022 will be remembered as one of the great turning points in modern history. After months priming the casus belli for an invasion, President Vladimir Putin finally unleashed the full force of Russia’s military might against Ukraine.
From Kharkiv to Kyiv, Russian bombardments have struck fear into the hearts of non-combatants. Russian terror has been unleashed, and civilians have already been caught in the crossfire. Europe’s greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War has begun.
The origins of this turning point, which represents a dramatic tearing up of the UN Charter, go back not to Kyiv in 2022, however, or to the Donbas in 2014, but to Damascus in 2013. As the Ukrainian conflict unfolds, it is worth devoting some attention to Russia’s recent combat record in Syria.
At about 2:30 am on the morning of 21 August 2013, people in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta were brutally awoken when surface-to-surface rockets bearing a nerve agent – most likely sarin gas – were pounded into their homes. Hundreds of civilians, including children, were killed in one of the most inhumane ways imaginable, suffocating and convulsing as the nerve agent infected their central nervous systems.
The evidence quickly pointed towards the Assad regime: the design of the rockets, 330mm and Soviet-era 140-mm surface-to-surface rocket systems, were known only to be in the possession of the Syrian government’s own armed forces.
And there was that most crucial of things – motive. The opposition forces that had been fighting against the Assad regime, the diverse and loosely-aligned groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were using Ghouta as a crucial supply route to import and distribute weapons and fighters from nearby Jordan. The Assad regime along with allied fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah had been besieging the suburbs. Assad clearly calculated that he could use state terror to pummel the opposition into submission, devastating non-combatants and draining the will of the FSA to continue fighting.
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The Assad regime, of course, has always denied this. But throughout the last decade, all of the findings from serious independent investigations led by the United Nations, by Human Rights Watch, and by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have confirmed the probable role of the Syrian government in perpetrating the vast majority of reported chemical weapons attacks during the civil war.
What happened in Ghouta in 2013 marked a crucial moment in the history of our world, and not only for fate of the Syrian civil war. United States intelligence had already concluded that more limited chemical weapons attacks had been carried out by the Assad regime from the end of 2012. Yet it was the sheer scale and utter brutality of the Ghouta attacks that first shocked the international community and brought the Assad regime’s war against its own people into the global spotlight.
What followed was a slow capitulation of all international efforts to hold Assad accountable. The chemical weapons attacks were a clear violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but President Barack Obama, after having issued warnings of a “red line” that ought not to be crossed in the summer of 2012, ultimately failed to follow stern words with concrete actions. Instead, Obama climbed down in 2013, accepting a Russian-led plan to persuade the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons – of course, these were chemical weapons that Assad denied having in the first place.
In reality, the US’s inaction eventually opened up a clear vacuum into which President Putin quickly moved, enabling him to bolster and reassert the old Cold War alliance between Russia and Syria. In September 2015, Russian forces were officially invited by President Assad to intervene in the civil war, turning the Syrian stalemate decisively in Assad’s favour.
The Syrian and Russian armies then proceeded to deliberately bomb civilian areas, including schools, hospitals and markets, in their quest to crush the Syrian opposition. Further horrific chemical weapons attacks have been carried out in 2017, in Khan Shaykhoun, and in 2018, in Douma, both while the Assad regime has been riding under Russia’s de facto authority,diplomatic protection, and security umbrella.
And all the while, as the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou has shown, Russian and Syrian state television, amplified and supported by conspiracy theorists in the West, reinforced the Russian military effort through a concerted disinformation campaign. This muddied the waters in the conflict, inverting the truth and twisting reality to provide cover for war atrocities. For instance, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the 2018 Douma attack was staged as a part of a “Russophobic campaign” led by the West.
In a disturbing echo of President Putin’s current demonising of the current Ukrainian government as a Nazi and fascist threat, all of the Syrian opposition forces were declared to be “terrorists” and hardened jihadists. The Russian intervention was thus spun out as a “preventative” war to face down hostile jihadi forces before they could reach Russia.
At the time, the chairman of the Russian Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, claimed that “the moderate (Syrian) opposition is largely a myth invented by the United States.”
In reality, according to many reports on the ground, the Russian and Syrian regime forces targeted FSA positions with a ruthless offensive while areas held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were left unscathed. In doing so, Putin, following Assad, waged a merciless war against the very forces that might have been able to prevent the rise and then persistence of ISIL. Instead, ordinary men, women and children paid the terrible price of Syria’s failed revolution.
This matters, because Russia’s Ukraine strategy is taken straight from this ruthless Syrian playbook as well as from the lessons learned by the Kremlin during the 2014 Ukraine Crisis and the annexation of Crimea. The same lethal combinations of disinformation, propaganda, and brute force have now been used to tear up international borders in Eastern Europe.
So far as we know, the Ukrainian civilian casualties in the conflict so far have been tragically caught up in the fog of war, and were not the victims of deliberate efforts to strike at non-combatants. But if the Russian forces were to get bogged down in a Syria-esque battle of attrition or an extended counter-insurgency campaign, we should not be surprised if Putin decided to unleash the same vicious tactics honed on Syrians in Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib in order to coerce Ukrainians into submission.
It is a chilling thought, but the West only has itself to blame. The fateful failure to hold the Assad regime accountable for its actions and uphold the principles of international law is now reverberating in Ukraine, as Putin tears up the UN’s founding principles – particularly those of sovereign equality, self-determination and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means. At the same time, the excesses of the War on Terror, the deceitful use of intelligence surrounding the Iraq invasion, and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan have all cast doubt on the credibility of the US-led NATO alliance. The Russian President has grown used to a Western world that talks a big game but fails to live up to, or act upon, its own ideals. The revival of NATO over the last few weeks, and the announcement of stronger sanctions by the EU, US, and UK this week, are long overdue.
As Emma Sky often warns us, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. Assad and Putin’s massacre in Syria, and the wider success of Arab authoritarians in countering the Arab Spring, has cast a long shadow over Europe.
The road to Kyiv runs through Damascus.