Russia’s Syria intervention provided hints for Ukraine war

BEIRUT – From a tent in the rebel-held pocket of Syria, Ahmad Rakan has closely followed news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than two years ago, a Russian airstrike destroyed his house in a nearby village during a months-long Syrian government offensive backed by Moscow’s firepower that drove him and tens of thousands of others from their homes.

“We more than anyone else feel their pain,” he said of Ukrainian civilians currently under Russian bombardment.

For the past seven years, Syrians like Rakan have experienced first-hand Russia’s military might as it struck opposition strongholds, brokered mass surrender deals and deployed military police across their country, practically rendering it a Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean.

Observers say Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria and the impunity with which it was met emboldened Vladimir Putin. They say it gave him a renewed Middle East foothold from where he could assert Russian power globally, and paved the way for his attack on Ukraine.

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“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 is regressing and China’s role is increasing and Europe is divided and preoccupied with its internal concerns … so he decided to intervene,” he said.

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. It saved President Bashar Assad’s government and turned the tide of the war in his favor, enabling the Syrian leader to brutally reassert control over much of Syria. Russian airstrikes often indiscriminately hit hospitals, schools and markets.

The war-ravaged country became a testing ground for Russian weapons and tactics that it can now bring to bear in Ukraine.

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Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East, said Russia deployed a “multi-domain” approach in Syria, including long-range precision weapons and large-scale bombing campaigns, along with cyber warfare, disinformation and use of paramilitary forces.

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 also showed a canny diplomatic touch in Syria, creating arrangements with the West that forced an implicit acceptance of its intervention. It created joint patrols with NATO member Turkey which backed Syrian rebels, to enforce truces in some areas. It established understandings with Israel that allowed the latter to carry out airstrikes against 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.

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At the same time, it sought to defend Assad on the international scene, dismissing as fabrications Assad’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. Within Syria, Russia added a soft power campaign. 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. He and other Russian-speaking Syrians worked from an office set up in a local university.

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.

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“Then Russians came and the front line was pushed way back,” he told The Associated Press in a phone call from Ukraine, where he is now stuck in an Airbnb in a residential area 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. He spoke on condition his full name would not be used for his safety.

Today, Max no longer buys into the Russian narrative. Many in his hometown in Syria, though, support Russia’s war in Ukraine, as Moscow continues to mount a sophisticated disinformation effort about its 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.

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Resentment runs deepest in the northwest province of Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held bastion, where Russian airstrikes continue to this day. In a statement issued Monday, the opposition’s civil defense group known as the White Helmets group, deplored Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“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.

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“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. He said he hopes a Russian defeat in Ukraine could have positive repercussions for Syria’s opposition.

“We pray for God for victory for the people of Ukraine, and we hope that this war will mark the end of Russia,” he said.

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

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