March 9, 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine happened because the world gave Vladimir Putin a free pass in Syria
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, I rushed to a protest organized by Ukrainians in Oxford, England. I, along with fellow Syrians, brought the Syrian revolution flag to the protests to demand an end to the invasion.
At the time, I struggled to put into words why I felt so strongly about Ukraine. Before long, I found out about the forceful Syrian participation in protests across Europe and the United States against the invasion. Pictures of the Syrian revolution flag appeared alongside Ukrainian flags waved at the demonstrations, showcasing identification with the values of freedom and democracy that Moscow is attacking yet again.
Those very values were obliterated when Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 to prop up the authoritarian and brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. With the help of Moscow, the Assad regime forcibly displaced millions of Syrians; committed crimes against humanity and war crimes by bombing hospitals and schools in Idlib and Aleppo provinces; was largely responsible for killing at least half a million through indiscriminate shelling, massacres, crimes of torture, and sexual violence; led mass disinformation campaigns to depict the Syrian regime’s war against the Syrian people as a “war on terror”; and covered up the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Syrians are well aware of the stark differences between Syria and Ukraine, and their solidarity with Ukraine doesn’t only come from a shared experience with Russian military occupation. This solidarity, or better yet, “identification,” with Ukraine, as Syrian political commentator Yassin Swehat calls it, comes from the increasing recognition that Ukraine’s plight arises from the world’s indifference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria. Thus, Syrian solidarity with Ukraine comes from a belief that the invasion of Ukraine could have been averted had the world stopped Putin in Syria.
With flagrant impunity, Russia committed war crimes under the world’s watch, while also vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions that could have stopped the bloodshed in Syria. Today, the carte blanche that Putin enjoyed in Syria has emboldened him to repeat a similar war on Ukrainians, with reports of civilian targets being bombed, including schools, hospitals, and residential areas across Ukraine. Just as the absence of a no-fly zone in Syria signaled to Russia and the Syrian regime that they wouldn’t be stopped from bombing Syrian civilians, NATO’s March 4 rejection of Kyiv’s proposal of a no-fly zone over Ukraine provides a green light for Russia to target civilians.
Worse yet, Putin’s war in Syria has encouraged him to lead a war of annexation on Ukraine, as Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh recently argued. Saleh’s analysis sheds light on a terrifying implication of Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine. In the same way that Putin and the Assad regime deem pro-democracy Syrians as unforgivable terrorists deserving of death and destruction, Putin believes Ukraine and Ukrainians are undeserving of a legitimate and independent state.
In the same way that Putin questions the humanity of anti-Assad Syrians and the independence of Ukrainians now, he will question the humanity and independence of other peoples he deems unworthy of independence, including former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries that were under the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. This is why an attack on Syria was an attack on the international community and why an invasion of Ukraine should be viewed in the same manner.
The European Union and United States must ensure that “humanitarian corridors” for Ukrainian evacuees are protected to stop some of the bloodshed. They must extract guarantees from Russia that civilians aren’t used as bargaining chips. Moreover, they must make clear to Moscow that the more destruction it causes during the war, the more it will have to pay later to the Ukrainian people, both in the form of reparations and in terms of accountability for committing war crimes. But those efforts must not neglect the fact that Ukraine isn’t the first place where such crimes are committed and must provide for forms of justice and accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that Russia committed in Syria.
This invasion has placed Ukrainians at the forefront of the fight for the values of freedom and democracy in the world. Ukrainians aren’t only fighting for themselves, but also for the future victims of Russian aggression—in the same way that Syrians fought for the future victims of Russian war crimes, disinformation campaigns, and authoritarian ideology.
During the invasion of Ukraine, Syrians are repeatedly saying to the international community, “We told you so”—that the crimes committed in Syria would be committed elsewhere if they go unpunished.
Syrians don’t want what happened to them to happen to others and certainly would hate to see the world normalize the destruction of cities in yet another country. Syrians don’t want to see the Russian tactics honed in their country be used elsewhere. Syrians don’t want to see millions of people being forcibly displaced across borders the way they were. They don’t want to see the trauma of being shipped by buses to other parts of the country be repeated in Ukraine. Syrians don’t want to see the schools that teach Ukrainian children and the hospitals that treat wounded Ukrainians be brutally bombed. Syrians don’t want to see evacuees being targeted by parties to conflict after an ostensible ceasefire.
Syrians hope Ukraine and Ukrainians can show the world that their fight for freedom and democracy is worth defending, and that the attack on them is an attack on democracy at large.
Now that the world can finally—albeit belatedly—see Putin for what he is, Syrians hope that the world views their plight for democracy and freedom in Syria with more solidarity.
Marwan Safar Jalani is a Rhodes Scholar from Syria, researching post-conflict stabilization and recurrence of war at the University of Oxford.
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