Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ukraine Evokes Painful Memories for Syrians Marking 11 Years of Conflict

Ukraine Syrians
Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun paint a mural amid the destruction, depicting the colors of the Russian and Ukrainian flags, to protest against Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP

Justin Salhani

Ukrainians are receiving solidarity from another group of people who have experienced Russian military aggression. Syrians opposed to the Russia-aligned Assad regime are sharing information with Ukrainians on how to survive airstrikes, document war crimes, and training civil defense forces. Assad, meanwhile, has officially thrown his support behind Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United Nations and by providing Moscow with fighters, according to US officials.

“[We] really empathize with what’s going on because we’ve gone through the past decade of war ourselves and we really know what it means, and what Ukrainians are feeling and going through right now,” Leila Al-Shami, the British-Syrian co-author of the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told Fanack.

Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime in 2015, four years after the start of the uprising, marked on March 15, devolved into fighting between various factions, leaving the conflict in something of a stalemate. Putin’s intervention was officially announced as a means to tackle the growing power and territory of the Islamic State but observers say he instead focused Russian military power on the democratic opposition and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and markets.

The same tactics seen over the last seven years in Syria are now taking place in Ukraine, as a Russian airstrike destroyed a maternity and children’s hospital in the city of Mariupol. On February 25, cluster munitions – banned by an international convention that Russia has not signed – were used on a preschool sheltering civilians killing three including one child, according to Amnesty International.

“It’s very hard for me to forget the scenes that came out of there,” Raed Al-Saleh, leader of the Syrian civilian rescue force called the White Helmets, told Time about a hospital in rural Aleppo hit by Russian cluster munitions. “And it wasn’t just rural Aleppo, it was the city itself. It was Damascus, it was Homs, it was Idlib. So many places were targeted with cluster munitions. And the scenes from Ukraine are so reminiscent of that.”

Syrians have thrown their support behind embattled Ukrainians by various means. The White Helmets say they have lost 252 volunteers – many to Russian airstrikes – in the Syrian war, now in its 11th year, and are now offering to send volunteers to aid Ukrainians. The group recently published a video expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and a statement condemning Russia’s invasion. “We deplore in the strongest terms all of the acts of Russian aggression on the Ukraine people,” the statement said. “It pains us immensely to know that the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians.”

Graffiti artists in Idlib have painted a mural in support of Ukrainians, while Syrians in exile have prepared a slew of posters and placards to support protests on the ground and online. The green, white, and black Syrian flag was waved during protests for Ukraine at Place de la Republique in Paris. Other Syrians are sharing tips with Ukrainians on how to survive in a war zone.

According to Al-Shami, one such technique is to remain vigilant of Russia’s ‘double-tap’ operations, which involve a first airstrike followed by a second strike after rescue troops arrive. These assaults are targeted squarely at civilians.

Hadi Al-Khatib has spent years compiling digital evidence of possible war crimes for the Syrian Archive, a project he created. He’s now working with the advocacy group Mnemonic to set up a Ukrainian counterpart in the hopes of holding Putin accountable for alleged war crimes one day.

The International Criminal Court has already begun gathering evidence of alleged Russian military war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Ukraine, according to the BBC. The United Nations voted for a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with only five member states voting against. The five states were Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s calls for military aid from the West have already been met in ways that similar Syrian calls never were.

“There’s been a much more swift and coordinated response coming from Western nations in response to what’s happening in Ukraine,” Al-Shami said. “It shows what could have been done in Syria, not military action, which Western states are rightly kind of wary to engage in right now but in terms of the wide ranging sanctions that were immediately put on Russia, the discussions immediately to send Russia to the International Criminal Court and also the influx of weapons.”

Ukraine has received Stinger man portable air-defense systems, known more commonly as MANPADS, from the Biden administration. Similar requests from the Syrian opposition were never met.

“Syrians for years were begging for this because such defenses would have shielded the skies from Putin’s mass bombardment,” Al-Shami said. “This scorched-earth tactic has completely destroyed cities and triggered a tremendous humanitarian disaster, and the situation in Syria would have been considerably different [if MANPADS had been delivered].”

The disparity in support is also evident in the European Union’s reaction to refugees from Ukraine versus the reaction it had in 2015 to refugees entering its territory who were predominantly Syrian. In the entire year of 2015, 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe. In less than two weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than two million people have already fled.

While many politicians in Europe have spoken openly about doing their part to take in Ukrainians fleeing war, the good will toward them could eventually wane, according to Al-Shami.

“In Western Europe, I don’t think a mass influx of people from the east is going to be welcomed or tolerated for very long,” she said, citing anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric from politicians in the United Kingdom in particular. “We need to be very careful because I think that there will be a backlash towards Ukrainian refugees probably in the not so distant future.”

For now, support for Ukraine is manifesting in a variety of ways, including through the conscription of foreign fighters. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said more than 16,000 foreigners have volunteered to help repel Russia, including some Syrians. One Syrian-Ukrainian businessman announced he was forming a platoon in Odessa, having previously seen his hometown of Aleppo suffer Russian aggression.

Any Syrians fighting against Russia could however be coming face to face with their own countrymen. Moscow is recruiting Syrians with urban combat skills to support their incursion into Ukraine, according to U.S. officials. The Wall Street Journal reported, citing a Deir Ezzor-based publication, that Russia is purportedly offering Syrian volunteers between $200 and $300 to operate as guards in Ukraine for six months at a time.

“I think they just want Syrians as cannon fodder to clear the front lines and make sure there are no mines that are going to kill Russians,” Al-Shami said.

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