Putin is increasing his attacks on Ukrainian civilians and may be preparing to use chemical weapons. But these horrific tactics are not new — they were perfected by the Russian army during a brutal war in Syria.
As he walked the apocalyptic streets of Kharkiv last week, BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville cited what he called the "Russian attack playbook." Indeed, the shattered city in northeastern Ukraine evokes the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The scenes are strikingly similar: at the local hospital, aware that they could be the next target, medical workers pile injured children and women into the corridors. The beds by the windows would be deadly in the event of an attack.
It was 2015, when the Russian Army officially entered the war in Syria to fight alongside the troops of dictator Bashar al-Assad, ostensibly to neutralize the expansion of the Islamic State (IS).
Weapons tested on civilians
In practice, troops and fighter jets sent by Moscow, on its first foreign mission since the collapse of the Soviet Union, undertook a devastating bombing campaign over areas controlled by rebel factions. On Ukrainian territory, they hit medical centers, schools or markets without shame.
From Idlib, the last stronghold in northern Syria controlled by opponents – which continues to suffer from Russian attacks — the rescue group White Helmets commented “it hurts us immensely to see that the weapons tested on Syrians are being used against civilian Ukrainians."
Syrians suffered firsthand the power of precision missiles.
President Vladimir Putin himself recognized it in 2018: "Our Army developed combat experience in Syria with new weapons systems." Putin singled out the use for the first time of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Su-57 fighter jets, the S-500 air defense system, or Armata tanks. Syrians suffered firsthand the power of precision missiles, cruise missiles with a range of up to 2,000 km, incessant aerial bombardment campaigns, cyberwar and the expansion of paramilitary forces.
Moscow's new war doctrine
With the strategy of mass destruction, the Russians managed to prop up the Baathist regime in Syria through forced surrender agreements and the deployment of their boots on the ground. Thus, they turned the Arab country into a Russian protectorate with a privileged base in Mediterranean waters. Faced with the fierce resistance from the Ukrainian recruits who have proven their ability to neutralize the advance of the ground forces, Russia once again devastates from the air. As the White House warned, the next step could involve the use of chemical weapons.
Syrian opposition groups denounced that the lukewarmness of the international community, which until the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine considered Russia a legitimate diplomatic actor, blinded Putin to the barbarities committed by his army. Ahmad Rakan, displaced in one of the last rebel strongholds, was hit by a Russian fighter shell at his home. "We, more than anyone, feel the pain of the Ukrainians," he told the AP agency.
Syria was not only a weapons laboratory: it brought with it the consolidation of a new geostrategic doctrine. Putin considered that the global power of the United States was in regression, China was on the rise and Europe was divided and busy countering its internal populisms. Playing the diplomatic card, the Kremlin created joint military patrols with Turkey (a NATO member) in rebel border areas; a tacit agreement to allow Israel to bomb pro-Iranian targets; or an arrangement with Washington to prevent their fighters from colliding over the Syrian skies.
Rubble from bombings on the outskirts of Aleppo
Juma Mohammed/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA
New alibi, modern method
In addition, Russia also disseminated its propaganda and disinformation strategy, which contributed to "denying" that Assad used chemical weapons against its own civilian population through the use of bots. In areas under the rule of the Damascus regime, festivals were organized to popularize Russian culture, its flags and traditional songs were played on television, and even hot food rations were served to the population. Thus, he managed to paint the Russian Army as their "defensive shield" against the Islamist extremism that threatened the country. This week, university students in the Syrian capital drew a huge human "Z", the symbol worn by the Kremlin's battle tanks in the occupation of the neighboring country.
The Kremlin's objective was to have a military capable of defeating a country with modern weapons.
The Russian presence at the naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean town of Tartus was not established solely to counter US and NATO military might. On Feb. 8, when Putin was already amassing thousands of soldiers on the Ukrainian borders, six warships were transferred from the Syrian base to the Black Sea to take part in military exercises.
During the Georgian war in 2008, Putin found out that he had inherited an incompetent army, with outdated weapons and lousy communication systems. The military campaign in Syria served as a preparation for the Russian armed forces. The experience neutralizing guerrilla factions, as was the case in Chechnya, was not enough to fight a regular army. The Kremlin's objective was to consolidate a military capable of defeating a country with modern weapons, such as those of the NATO member countries.
Syria definitely provided the confidence Putin needed to feel capable of challenging the West. In the Arab country, their participation was justified as a "fight against terrorism." Now, the pretext for whitewashing mass destruction is to overthrow a "coup" Ukrainian government and "denazify" the country.
*Ofer Laszewicki is a multimedia reporter specialized in Israel and the Middle-East.