In 2015, when Russia began its military intervention in Syria, it seemed that the barbarism in the region was too important for the international community to turn its back on.
Numerous reports by United Nations commissions, as well as accountability, human rights, and humanitarian organizations, have documented war crimes with photographs, videos, and personal testimony. The world has watched countless incidents of missiles destroying hospitals or mutilated Syrian children covered in dust and blood being pulled from collapsed apartment buildings.
By some accounts, the documentation of war crimes in Syria is the strongest evidence since the crimes of the Nazis in World War II. And yet, the international community has failed to act. No one was held accountable. Syria is a test case for the world’s determination on how to respond to a brutal aggressor who justifies attacking civilians and hospitals. Inaction in Syria gives Putin the green light to start another brutal war to swallow another large chunk of territory from his neighbor, Ukraine.
“The people of Syria do not receive adequate international protection, and this gives the Kremlin and its accomplices a sense of impunity,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in March. “Russian bombs are destroying cities in Syria in the same way that they are our cities in Ukraine. It is in this impunity that an important part of the current aggressiveness of the Kremlin lies.”
He was right. It is clear that Putin, for whom the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant related to crimes in Ukraine, is applying the same tactics he used in Syria in this latest war. Since last autumn, we have witnessed a new stage of the Russian invasion – a Syrianization of the war, where Russia is mainly targeting one group: civilians.
This new phase began with the appointment of General Sergei Surovikin, known for his brutal bombing campaigns in Syria, as the overall commander of Russia’s so-called special military operations in early October. The 56-year-old Air Force general oversaw the relentless targeting of clinics, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria in 2019, an effort to break the will of opponents and sending refugees fleeing to Europe through neighboring Turkey.
The 11-month campaign is reported to have shown indifference to the lives of nearly three million civilians in the area. As it did in Syria and Chechnya, Russia is implementing a well-tested strategy of attrition against civilians to force Ukraine to surrender. Putin’s propaganda machine labels all Syrian civilians in opposition-controlled areas “terrorists,” just as he mistakenly labeled his invasion of Ukraine a de-Nazification campaign. The sieges of Mariupol and now Bakhmut are reminiscent of the sieges of Aleppo, Ghouta and Homs.
I am reminded of the endless calls over the past 12 years for humanitarian protection of Syrian civilians from the raining inferno of Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and Russian heat-seeking missiles. , which all landed on deaf ears. More than 63,000 Russian military personnel have “received combat experience” in Syria since September 2015.
Russia’s defense minister boasted that they tested “more than 320 types of different weapons” in their military operations in Syria that killed 87,500, according to Russian sources. Even the hospitals were not spared. Russia’s war in Syria has targeted doctors, hospitals, and clinics, depriving communities of healthcare. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 859 attacks on health care centers since the start of the war in Ukraine, resulting in 101 deaths and 136 injuries.
Between April 29 and mid-September 2019, as Russian and Syrian government forces attacked the last rebel pocket in Northwest Syria, 54 hospitals and clinics in opposition territory were attacked. According to Syrian human rights groups, Russia has carried out more than 335 massacres and at least 1,083 attacks on important civilian facilities, including 201 attacks on schools and 190 attacks on medical facilities. It has killed at least 20,944 Syrian civilians from airstrikes using illegal weapons such as cluster incendiary and “thermobaric” vacuum bombs.
On a medical mission in northern Syria after a series of Russian attacks on hospitals and towns in January 2020, I met Dr Loubna Saad, a local pediatrician whose family had disappeared from Maarat al-Numan. Saad described the dire conditions of displacement in his town, where most people live in temporary shelters and lack basic necessities. Diesel fuel for heating is scarce and expensive; Families burn plastic bags and household items to keep their families warm. “The children are traumatized,” he told me. “I treat children with severe malnutrition and women who cannot breastfeed their children due to psychological trauma and lack of good nutrition.” Similar stories and events happened in Ukraine last winter.
With the tacit support of Russia, the al-Assad regime has used banned chemical weapons, including nerve gas and choking agents, more than 300 times against its population. Russia has prevented the United Nations Security Council from investigating these war crimes and holding them accountable, and al-Assad continues to avoid the International Criminal Court.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Health asked my organization MedGlobal to help prepare chemical weapons. There are reports that Russia may use such banned weapons against Ukrainian cities, mirroring what happened in Syria. The Biden administration has also warned that Russia could deploy chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine — and now, Russia has announced that it will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Like in Syria and almost all hospitals around the world, Ukrainian hospitals lack the equipment to respond to chemical warfare agents. They lack antidotes, detection devices, proper personal protection devices, decontamination units, and medical protocols for treatment.
When Russia first intervened militarily in Syria, former President Barack Obama believed that Putin would be dragged into a Syrian quagmire. He abandoned al-Assad in 2013 after he crossed America’s declared red line and used nerve gas, paving the way for the Syrian president to continue using chemical weapons for the next five years. Putin interpreted Obama’s hesitation as a green light to invade Ukraine, first in 2014 and then in 2022.
The US administrations under Donald Trump and Joe Biden continue to approach Obama, which has allowed Russia to destroy Syrian cities, pushing millions of civilians to become refugees or internally displaced persons and strengthening the al-Assad’s dictatorship.
The Syrian regime must be held accountable for its crimes against its civilians. The Biden administration should lead efforts to refer Syria’s leaders to the International Criminal Court. Unless they face justice, it will be impossible for the 6.5 million refugees to return safely to their towns and neighborhoods. The Biden administration must also use its diplomatic levers to stop the trend of countries normalizing relations with the al-Assad regime, without concessions.
And finally, the US should declare what is happening in Ukraine as a genocide. There is a lot of evidence that Russia is trying to erase Ukrainian identity and culture, deporting thousands of Ukrainian children and putting them in re-education camps.
Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people understand the connection between what is happening in Syria and what is happening in their homeland, as do many US leaders, including many members of Congress. But the big question remains: Will Washington act on that understanding?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.