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Tried and tested calculus: Putin’s lessons from the Syria war, and how he’s applying them now Politics

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Bombed cities, millions of refugees and a cynical calculation of those in power: eleven years after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria on March 15, 2011, the world is experiencing a new war in Ukraine, in which Russia uses superiority military to force the population of a country to surrender. The war in the Middle East has provided sobering insights for Ukraine.

When Syria’s ruler Assad reacted with great violence to demands for democracy in the spring of 2011, the outrage in the West was great. But nothing more. Because in the event of war, the mantra of the West is: There is no military solution to such conflicts. Not even massive bombings, targeted attacks on schools and hospitals, or the closure and starvation of big cities usually change this attitude.

Putin sees this as a weakness to be exploited. First in Crimea and Donbass, and then in Syria, he made it clear to the international community that fighter jets and soldiers can very well be used to achieve political and military goals. That the battlefield will decide who is in charge. If there are negotiations, Russia will dictate them from a position of strength.

[Alle aktuellen Entwicklungen im Ukraine-Krieg können Sie hier in unserem Newsblog verfolgen.]

Above all, however, the mission in Syria taught Moscow that significant resistance from the Americans and Europeans is not to be expected. That became clear to the Kremlin chief no later than 2012. At the time, US President Barack Obama warned Syria’s ruler Assad against using poison gas.

It has been shown that he did it for a year anyway, and he got away with it. For Putin it was clear: the West is not ready to intervene. This inaction encouraged Russia to intervene directly in Syria in late September 2015.

The West also did nothing as the fight against the opposition was waged with increasing brutality. As is the case now in Ukraine, there have been many calls for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attack. But Obama also shied away from this: the United States did not want to risk a direct confrontation with Russia.

And Washington still doesn’t want it to this day. Putin will be punished with sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine and forced to give in. But neither the Americans nor the Europeans nor NATO dare stand in their way. According to Markus Kaim, rightly so. “The Syrian conflict was a struggle between regional powers. Russia was concerned about expanding her influence in the Middle East. From the Western point of view, this happened on the European periphery.”

[Alle aktuellen Nachrichten zum russischen Angriff auf die Ukraine bekommen Sie mit der Tagesspiegel-App live auf ihr Handy. Hier für Apple- und Android-Geräte herunterladen]

The war in Ukraine has a completely different dimension, says the employee of the Science and Policy Foundation. “This conflict is taking place at the superpower level. It’s about nuclear weapons. That is another much more dangerous category.”

Many Syrians, like here in Idlib, show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa

cruelty is worth it

The view of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after being shelled by the Russian army recalls the devastation in the Syrian economic metropolis of Aleppo. Initially the city was held by the rebels, but in 2016 Russian airstrikes destroyed much of the city.

Tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands had to flee. The violence paid off for Assad and Russia: in December 2016, the insurgents had to admit defeat and evacuate Aleppo. The battle was a turning point in the war.

The alleged attack on a maternity hospital in the surrounded Ukrainian city of Mariupol also looked like a scene from the Syrian war. Air strikes and artillery fire on civilian installations are aimed at spreading terror and breaking opponents’ resistance.

Dealing with so-called humanitarian corridors in Ukraine also resembles a Syrian war tactic. In laying siege to rebel strongholds, the Syrian and Russian militaries used agreements on the withdrawal of civilians from the combat zone to increase pressure on opponents.

Despite local ceasefires, they continued their bombardment. Although the rebel fighters were to be given safe conduct to withdraw, they were arrested. In some cases, both attackers and defenders used ceasefires and humanitarian corridors as an opportunity to regroup and reinforce their troops.

Residents of the Ukrainian city of Irpin try to escape attacks by the Russian army.Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

Lies and misinformation are part of war

If you believe Assad, Syria is not about a ruler’s war against his own people, but about a legitimate government’s fight against terrorists. The “enemies of the motherland” must be defeated, Assad said last year. This includes anyone who turns against him, whether armed or peaceful.

Following the first strikes by its air force in Syria in 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that an “Islamic State” (IS) command center had been destroyed. But according to Western states, Russian planes targeted areas where the Islamic State was not active. Today Moscow refers to alleged “Nazis” in the Kiev government to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

You can read more about the war against Ukraine on Tagesspiegel Plus:

In Syria, the Syrian and Russian armies are attacking hospitals and schools in rebel-held areas, according to aid organizations. Despite all the evidence of such attacks, Damascus and Moscow deny the allegations. The situation in the Ukrainian war is similar.

Moscow describes the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital as fake news. The hospital was used by the military. Denial is part of the war on the Russian side. When Western states showed that the Assad government was using poison gas, Damascus and the Kremlin reacted by claiming that the rebels, and not government troops, had used these chemical weapons.

Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad is once again in control of much of the country, thanks to his ally Vladimir Putin.Photo: Louai Beshara/AFP

Violence can win war, but not peace

Starting in 2016, Assad managed to avoid defeat in the war with brutality, massive military action, and Russian help against the insurgents. Today, the President’s government once again controls around two-thirds of the country’s territory. The opposition now only rules over Idlib province on the Turkish border. Russia has air sovereignty over all areas west of the Euphrates.

However, one cannot speak of a complete victory for Assad or even peace. Much of the country is in ruins, with more than half of the nearly 18 million Syrians having lost their homes as a result of the war. Furthermore, Syria is de facto divided. All areas east of the Euphrates are controlled by the Kurdish-dominated SDF militia with US support. In the north, the Turkish army occupies several strips of territory.

Iranian groups and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah from Lebanon, which came to help Assad, have also established themselves in Syria. Assad cannot even guarantee peace in his own sphere of government. The repression and the catastrophic economic situation repeatedly trigger riots, the most recent last year in the southern province of Daraa. The area where the uprising against the dictator began in March 2011.


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