Punishment for Syria’s war crimes casts shadow on Ukraine

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Punishment for Syria’s war crimes casts shadow on Ukraine

Beirut, Lebanon – Syrian police stormed her home and dragged her husband away. Her eldest son was killed when Syrian government shells rained down on her hometown. So like millions of other Syrians, the Hanadi Hafisi fled the country with plans to return when the war ended.

A decade later, he is still a refugee in Turkey, where his work at a war-injury center exposes him to the relentless displays of human destruction perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian supporters. : Paralysis, missing arms and legs, and profound trauma that leaves his patients to ask why such disasters destroyed their lives.

“I don’t know what to say when they ask me if they will reach justice,” said Ms Hafeesi, 46. “Seriously, what do they have to tell? Will that Bashar be held accountable? Will he face trial? Absolutely not.”

As the world takes on the grim realities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – bombing a once lively neighborhood, civilians trying to be killed with shells, speculation about whether Russia will use chemical weapons – many Syrians Have viewed déj vu with an eerie feeling and a deep foreboding about what lies ahead.

The Syrian war that began 11 years ago this month with an anti-Assad uprising has turned into a multilateral conflict between the government, armed rebels, jihadists and others. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions have fled their homes, and Mr. al-Assad remains in power, thanks in large part to widespread support from the man who is now invading Ukraine, President Vladimir. v. Putin Russia.

The legacy of Syria’s war, and Russia’s role in it, weighs heavily on Ukraine, offering Mr. Putin a possible lesson, with analysts saying: that the “red line” set by the West can be crossed without major consequences; Diplomacy may be used to divert attention allegedly aimed at preventing violence; And that autocrats can do terrible things and face international sanctions – and still remain in power.

Much of the brutality that Mr al-Assad took to crush his enemies was documented in real time and sparked outrage that made many think he never got away with it Could be

They gunned down workers and armed thugs to quell the protests and fired ammunition at the crowd. As the opposition took up arms, its troops shelled, bombed, and laid siege to the insurgent-supported towns and neighborhoods.

Those actions killed a large number of civilians and sent many to flee for their lives. More than half of Syria’s population was displaced during the war, and 5.7 million refugees remain outside the country.

In August 2013, Mr al-Assad’s military shocked the world by deploying chemical weapons on rebel-held cities near the capital Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, US officials said.

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Many Syrians hoped that such an open violation of international law would lead to Western military intervention, especially since President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”.

“I was sure we saw something that very few people had experienced before, like the people watching Chernobyl or Hiroshima,” said 29-year-old chemical attack survivor Ibrahim Alfwal.

But he was shocked when the US did not intervene. Mr. al-Assad’s forces eventually took control of the cities, which had to pay no price for the use of banned weapons.

It appears that al-Assad can rely on impunity, Mr Alfwal said, and attacks on civilian infrastructure by Syrian forces – including schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and bakeries, where families can buy bread. stood in line – only grew.

In 2015, Mr. Putin sent Russian forces to help Mr. al-Assad’s beleaguered army, and soon Russian officials were advising Syrian forces and Russian jets were bombing Syrian cities – enjoying the same impunity. were taking what seemed to Mr. al-Assad. ,

In Ukraine, Russia has used propaganda campaigns similar to those in Syria, where it unfairly branded opposition activists as members of al Qaeda and “false flags” to blame the Syrian government on the rebels. As was accused of launching chemical attacks.

“They are taking the same concept they used in Syria, to lie and stick to it,” Mr Alfaval said of Russia’s approach to Ukraine.

Chemical attacks continue in Syria. In addition to two — in the village of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and east of Damascus in 2018 — there have been at least 350 other attacks with the chemical, according to Tobias Schneider, a researcher at Global Public Policy. Institute in Berlin.

Most of them used chlorine, which is not classified as a chemical weapon, but can be used to intimidate civilians and encourage them to flee.

Although no evidence has emerged that the Russian military used chemical weapons in Syria, researchers believe that Mr. Putin enabled Mr. al-Assad to do so.

“It is absolutely certain that the Russian government at least knows and facilitates the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian people, mostly chlorine attacks,” Mr Schneider said.

There is no indication that chemical weapons have been used in Ukraine, but given the war there, many Syrians see signs that Mr. Putin is using parts of Syria’s playbook.

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“Russians are ready to eat green and dried,” said Radwan Alhomsi, a Syrian activist in southern Turkey, using the Arabic idiom that destroyed everything. “They don’t care about the international community or anything else. We saw in Syria. School burning is nothing new for us. This is the land they want to take, and they will take it.”

European analysts point to differences between the wars in Syria and Ukraine that could lead to different Western reactions. Unlike Mr. Putin, Mr. al-Assad fought to gain control of his country, not take over one of his neighbours. Unlike Syria, Russia is a nuclear-armed power, which complicates the issue of military intervention.

And while the United States and its European allies largely let al-Assad shy away from using chemical weapons in the Middle East, Mr. Putin’s doing so on the European continent would most likely cause alarm and a harsh reaction. will be received.

“If Putin thinks he will be treated like al-Assad, he is wrong because he is not al-Assad and this is not Syria,” said Patricia Lewis, director of the international security program at Chatham House.

Still, Mr. Putin could take some solace from Mr. al-Assad’s survival: how the West mistakenly assumed that Mr. al-Assad’s downfall was inevitable, and how he clings to power despite sanctions that have put his Threatened the economy and became poor. his people.

Emil Hokayim, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned of two strategies used in Syria that Russians could employ in Ukraine.

One was Russia’s involvement in international diplomacy aimed at ending violence as a way to distract the West from war on the ground. The second was the deliberate creation of a refugee crisis to crush Europe and drain its resources.

“Creating a humanitarian catastrophe is part of the war strategy, not a secondary effect, because that’s how you shift the burden to the other side,” he said.

Many Syrian refugees are watching the Ukraine war from impoverished camps in the Middle East or from European cities where they are struggling to start new lives.

While some feel bitter about the warmth shown by the Ukrainians to flee, the Syrians also remember their own war, and hope that the Ukrainians will do better than them.

“We were left alone to face our fate,” said Mansour Abu al-Kheer, who survived two chemical attacks east of Damascus before fleeing as a refugee in southern Turkey. “I hope it doesn’t happen to Ukrainians.”

kora engelbrecht contributed reporting from London, and hwaida saadi And Asma al-Omari From Beirut, Lebanon.

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