Russian-Ukrainian War News: Live Updates

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian police stormed her house and took her husband away. His eldest son died in the rain of shells from the Syrian government on his hometown. So, like millions of other Syrians, Hanadi Hafisi fled the country with the intention of returning when the war ended.

A decade later, she is still a refugee in Turkey, where her work at a center that treats war-wounded exposes her to constant exposure to the human destruction wrought by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian supporters: paralysis, missing hands and legs and a deep trauma that leaves his patients wondering why such disasters have consumed their lives.

“I don’t know what to say to them when they ask me if they will achieve justice,” said Ms Hafisi, 46. “Seriously, what to tell them? That Bashar will be held responsible? That he will be judged? Of course not.”

As the world comes to grips with the grim realities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – once-bustling neighborhoods bombarded, civilians killed by shells as they tried to flee, speculation over the use of chemical weapons by Russia – many Syrians watched with a horrifying sense of deja vu and a deep foreboding about what lies ahead.

The Syrian war began 11 years ago this month with an anti-Assad uprising that escalated into a multifaceted conflict between the government, armed rebels, jihadists and others. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions have fled their homes and Mr. al-Assad has remained in power, largely thanks to the considerable support he has received from the man who is currently leading the invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin Russia.

Credit…Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev

The legacy of the war in Syria, and Russia’s role in it, hangs heavily on Ukraine, offering potential lessons for Putin, analysts say: that the “red lines” set by the West can be crossed without long-term consequences; that diplomacy purportedly aimed at stopping violence can be used to distract from it; and that autocrats can do terrible things and face international sanctions – and still stay in power.

Much of the brutality Mr. al-Assad has deployed to crush his enemies has been documented in real time and sparked outrage that left many thinking he could never get away with it.

He sent soldiers and armed thugs to stop protests by locking up activists and firing live ammunition into crowds. As the opposition took up arms, its troops bombarded, bombarded and imposed starvation sieges on towns and neighborhoods that supported the rebels.

These actions killed large numbers of civilians and sent many others fleeing for their lives. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population was displaced during the war, and 5.7 million refugees remain outside the country.

In August 2013, Mr. al-Assad’s forces shocked the world when they deployed chemical weapons on rebel-held towns near the capital, Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, US officials said.

Many Syrians expected such a flagrant violation of international law to trigger Western military intervention, especially since President Barack Obama had called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“I was sure we had witnessed something that very few people had experienced before, like those who witnessed Chernobyl or Hiroshima,” recalls 29-year-old Ibrahim Alfawal, who survived the chemical attack and said it felt like “judgment day”.

But he was shocked when the United States did not intervene. Mr. al-Assad’s forces eventually took control of the towns that had been gassed, appearing to pay no price for his use of banned weapons.

It seemed to show that Mr. al-Assad could count on impunity, Mr. Alfawal said, and the Syrian forces’ attacks on civilian infrastructure – including schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and bakeries where families had queued for bread – only intensified.

In 2015, Mr Putin sent Russian forces to aid Mr al-Assad’s beleaguered army, and soon Russian officers were advising Syrian forces and Russian planes were dropping bombs on Syrian towns – benefiting from the same impunity that Mr. al-Assad seemed to have. .

In Ukraine, Russia has used disinformation campaigns similar to those it launched in Syria, where it falsely labeled opposition activists as al-Qaeda members and accused rebels of launching the chemical attacks like false flag operations to blame the Syrian government.

“They’re adopting the same concept they used in Syria, lie and stick to it,” Alfawal said of Russia’s approach to Ukraine.

Chemical attacks in Syria have continued. In addition to two that killed large numbers of people – in the village of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and east of Damascus in 2018 – there were at least 350 other attacks with chemical substances, according to Tobias Schneider, researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

Credit…Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

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

Although no evidence has surfaced that Russian forces used chemical weapons in Syria, researchers believe that Mr. Putin allowed Mr. al-Assad to do so.

“It is absolutely certain that the Russian government at least knows and probably facilitated the use of chemical weapons by the Syrians, mainly chlorine attacks,” Schneider said.

There is no indication that chemical weapons were used in Ukraine, but watching the war there, many Syrians see signs that Mr. Putin is employing parts of the Syria playbook.

The Russians “are ready to devour the green and the dry,” said Radwan Alhomsy, a Syrian activist from southern Turkey, using an Arabic idiom meaning destroy everything. “They don’t care about the international community or anything else. We saw it in Syria. Burning schools is not new to us. This is ground they want to take, and they will take it.

Credit…United Nations Relief and Works Agency, via Reuters

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

And while the United States and its European allies have largely let Mr. al-Assad off the hook with the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East, for Mr. Putin to do so on the European continent would provoke most likely greater concern and would elicit a stronger response.

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

Yet Mr. Putin might take some solace in Mr. al-Assad’s survival: how the West continued to mistakenly believe that Mr. al-Assad’s downfall was inevitable, and how he clung to the power despite the sanctions that have strangled its economy and impoverished its people.

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

One was Russia’s engagement in international diplomacy aimed at ending violence as a means of distracting the West from war on the ground. Another was the deliberate creation of a refugee crisis to bog down Europe and sap its resources.

Credit…Mauricio Lima for the New York Times

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

Many Syrian refugees watch the war in Ukraine from impoverished camps in the Middle East or from European cities where they struggle to start a new life.

While some feel bitter at the warmth shown towards fleeing Ukrainians, Syrians also remember their own war and hope that Ukrainians will come out of it better than them.

“We were left alone to face our fate,” said Mansour Abu al-Kheir, who survived two chemical attacks east of Damascus before fleeing as a refugee to southern Turkey. “I hope this will not happen to Ukrainians.”

Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from London, and Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, Lebanon.

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