Russia's Ukraine war builds on tactics it used in Syria, experts say
The Washington Post March 31, 2022
The stories from people fleeing Mariupol are harrowing: Dwindling food supplies. No electricity or water. Russian tanks roaming the streets. Nights punctuated by shelling.
For Syrians, the accounts of life in the southeastern Ukrainian city, besieged by Russian forces, sound eerily familiar. Rights groups, officials and observers have drawn comparisons to the brutal tactics Russia deployed to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We're staggered by really the amount of similarities," said Daniel Balson, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
The conflicts are not the same: In Ukraine, Russia launched a ground invasion and has sustained significant casualties, while in Syria, where Russia intervened in 2015, it mostly offered air support.
But Russia continues to employs weapons and strategies honed on Syrian cities to deadly effect.
Syrians "have the best experience in dealing with the Russian targeting of civilian neighborhoods," said Farouq Habib, deputy chair of external relations for the Syrian Civil Defense, the volunteer search-and-rescue group known as the White Helmets.
Ukrainian officials have warned that Mariupol is "becoming a second Aleppo." Manolis Androulakis, Greece's consul general in Mariupol who became the last European Union diplomat to leave the city this month, said it will join Aleppo as "part of a list of cities that were completely destroyed by war."
The Syrian metropolis came to symbolize the willingness of Russian and Syrian forces to use ruthless tactics against civilians.
In 2016, during a nearly six-month siege of opposition-held parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, Russian forces attacked factories and water stations and cut off supply lines, leaving 250,000 residents with severe shortages of food, medicines and fuel. Humanitarian catastrophe followed.
In Mariupol, Russian forces have surrounded and bombarded the city, cutting off communications, water, gas and electricity, and preventing aid convoys from entering. Reports have emerged of residents melting snow for drinking water, rationing food among hungry children and running out of vital medicines.
Other Ukrainian cities, such as Chernihiv, face similar conditions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia this month of "starving" Ukrainian cities.
Russia has attacked medical facilities in both Aleppo and Mariupol, as well as schools and buildings where civilians had taken refuge — such as the theater Ukrainian authorities say Russia bombed in Mariupol — in a "complete violation" of the international principle that "belligerents have an obligation to distinguish between military and civilian targets," Balson said.
Syria also provided a testing ground for weapons Russia is using in Ukraine. Russian Defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in August that Russia had tested more than 300 weapons in Syria, Russian state media reported.
As in Syria, "a lot of the civilian casualties that we're documenting [in Ukraine] are being caused by dumb bombs — not targeted weapons," Balson said. "It's impossible to use such weapons in these heavily built up areas while ensuring that no civilians lose their lives."
In 2016, Human Rights Watch accused Russia and Syria of killing more than 440 civilians, among them more than 90 children, in a month-long bombing campaign in Aleppo.
Civilian harm monitor Airwars said in a report published last week that nearly 25,000 civilians have allegedly been killed by Russian strikes in Syria since 2015.
Russia and Syria deliberately bombed civilian areas, including medical facilities, and used indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and incendiary bombs, HRW found. Russia's alleged use of "vacuum" and cluster munitions in Ukraine have drawn scrutiny, in part because of the damage the weapons wreaked in Syria.
Five years after Russia began bombing Syria, the United Nations' Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused Russia of committing war crimes through its indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. But no Russian officials have faced trial.
Russia has also been accused of violating international law in Ukraine. Moscow has denied committing war crimes in Syria and said its forces are not targeting civilians in Ukraine.
Russian and Ukrainian officials said they had agreed to a temporary cease-fire Thursday, to allow aid in and evacuees out.
Habib argued that fixating global attention on the establishment of humanitarian corridors, and away from efforts to end hostilities or to establish safe zones, plays into Moscow's hands, in strategic terms.
"They want to empty those cities of their population, so it will be less costly for Russia to take over," Habib said of Russian authorities.
The war in Syria has forced 6.6 million Syrians to flee the country, according to the United Nations, with large numbers heading to Europe following Russia's intervention in September 2015. More than 4 million people fled Ukraine in just over a month of fighting, the U.N. said Wednesday. Three-quarters of Mariupol's population have left the city, according to some estimates.
The refugee exodus is a sign of Russia "exporting the problem," Habib said. As it did in Syria, Russia will seek to portray civilians who stay behind as either Russian allies or enemy combatants — and therefore legitimate targets, Notte warned.
Another element of Russia's Syria playbook on display in Ukraine: disinformation. In Syria, Russia and allies portrayed the White Helmets as terrorists. In Ukraine, the Kremlin has cast Ukrainian officials and soldiers as Nazis.
International law and conflict experts have raised concerns that the lack of accountability for Putin's actions in Syria emboldened the Russian leader. Balson pointed to what he described as a broader pattern of Russian forces killing civilians with impunity, stretching back to its siege of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in 1999.
"When the Russian government has intervened," he said, "there has been long-standing, well-documented incidences and patterns of human beings losing their lives, losing access to their resources, losing access to their homes."
In the lead-up to the Ukraine invasion, observers speculated that Putin may be less willing to kill Ukrainians because of the cultural and family ties they share with Russians.
That hasn't proved to be the case. The U.N. said 1,189 civilians had been killed as of Wednesday in Ukraine, in what officials say is a vast undercount. Local officials in Mariupol estimate that 5,000 people have been killed in that city alone.
Still, Ukraine is in many ways better positioned to counter Russian attacks than Syrians were. Ukrainians have taken refuge in bunkers and deep subway systems built to withstand missiles and bombs. And they've put up a fierce and unified resistance, defying Russian and Western expectations.
Unlike the Syria conflict — which Russia fought at relatively low cost by attacking from the sky while Syrian forces and allied militias attacked from the ground — Russia has sent tens of thousands of ground troops into Ukraine, where they are suffering heavy losses.
But as Russian casualties mount and ground offenses falter, experts said, Putin may continue to pivot toward fighting the type of air war he waged in Syria.
"He's started to resort to the Syria low-cost tactics," said Natasha Hall, senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Ukraine has received greater international attention and backing than did opposition groups and civilians in Syria, she said — and Russia has already faced greater consequences.
The surprise of some Western observers about Russia's willingness to attack Ukrainian cities has frustrated many Syrians.
"We as Syrians are really saddened to see the same atrocities that we have been suffering from, and we have been calling for the world to stop, are now repeated," Habib, of the White Helmets, said. "And we see that as a direct result for the lack of accountability for what happened previously in Crimea and in Syria."
Syrians who survived Russian bombardment have offered Ukrainians practical tips: Don't respond to bombing scenes until you're sure a second bomb isn't coming, and stock up on food.
The White Helmets, meanwhile, are sharing lessons learned from Syria with Ukrainian partners and translating into Ukrainian its safety guidebook for civilians under attack, Habib said.
"I don't see this ending soon, so they need to be prepared for a long-term war," he said.
Th Washington Post's Miriam Berger contributed to this report.