Picture : Vladimir Putin at Kremlin, Aprill 5th. — Alexei Druzhinin/AP/SIPA
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Syrians across the world stood in solidarity. For many, the experience of war at the hands of Russia was a personal one. Undoubtedly, Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria and its invasion of Ukraine bear important differences. While, rhetorically at least, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is purportedly aimed at supporting seperatist rebel groups against the Ukrainian state, its intervention in Syria came at the government’s behest. Nevertheless, the wars are linked in important ways, both tactically and geopolitically. As the world’s eyes turn to Ukraine, here is a look at how Russia’s intervention in Syria has affected Russia’s actions in Ukraine and how the war in Ukraine is likely to affect Syria’s ongoing conflict.
How Syria emboldened Putin
The bombs raining down on Ukrainian cities have a harrowing precedent in Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war which laid some of the groundwork for Russia’s ambitions and tactics in Ukraine. The intervention in Syria following the government’s official request for military aid in 2015, was Russia’s first military action outside the post-Soviet sphere since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked Russia’s arrival on the international diplomatic stage. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the aim of the operation was “to stabilize the legitimate government and create conditions for the search for a political compromise”. Russia’s intervention on the side of Assad’s regime proved a decisive turn in the tide of Syria’s civil war and underlined Russia’s ambition to be taken seriously as a global power by making itself an indispensable actor in international diplomatic efforts to mediate the brutal conflict in Syria. This was further underlined by the establishment of the Astana peace talks process, initiated and driven by Russia and Turkey.
Moreover, Russia’s intervention in Syria emboldened Putin politically and militarily. “There is no doubt that the Russian intervention in Ukraine is an accumulation of a series of Russian military interventions in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015,” Ibrahim Hamidi, Syrian journalist at Asharq Al-Awsat told the Associated Press. The impunity with which Russia carried out violations of human rights and the laws of war in Syria, for its own interests and on behalf of the internationally condemned Assad-regime, gave Putin the confidence that he would not be militarily challenged in Ukraine. Furthermore, Syria became the testing ground for new Russian jets and combat weapons. In 2018, Putin reportedly said that the Russian military’s combat experience in Syria had helped it develop new weapons. Russia’s intervention in Syria allowed Putin to test the limits of impunity on the international stage, try out military tactics and weapons and develop strategies in information warfare.
A common playbook
This development is highlighted by the disregard for civilian life evident in Russia’s military action in Syria and Ukraine alike. In a statement on the war in Ukraine, the Syrian White Helmets – a volunteer rescue group that has been targeted by a sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting it as a terrorist organization – expressed solidarity with Ukrainians: “It pains us immensely to know that the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians”. Russia’s intervention in Syria prompted widespread accusations of war crimes – concerns mirrored in Russia’s current indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv,Kharkiv and Mariupol. In its aerial bombing campaign against rebel-held Aleppo city in 2016, Russian airstrikes indiscriminately targeted residential buildings, using widely banned cluster bombs, while reports documented the deliberate targeting of medical facilities – accusations the Kremlin denied. According to the local human rights monitoring organization Violations Documentation Center, a month-long bombing campaign in September and October 2016 killed over 440 civilians in Aleppo alone. Similarly harrowing accounts came after a large-scale Russian-backed government campaign on Idlib between April 2019 and March 2020 during which schools, hospitals and markets were targeted and hundreds of civilians were killed.
It is now evident that Russia is using the same tactics in Ukraine. Human rights organizations have documented the use of cluster munition, including on a hospital in Vuhledar, in government-controlled Donetsk Oblast, and on a pre-school in Okhtyrka in Sumy Oblast. International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan on 28 February opened an investigation, stating “there is reasonable basis to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine”. Many of Russia’s tactics in Ukraine – the focus on aerial bombing, the use of indiscriminate weapons and the targeting of civilian infrastructure – are painfully familiar to Syrians who have seen their cities levelled by Russian shells for nearly a decade. “In Syria, Putin helped Assad carpet-bomb his citizens, terrorize them into submission. We are seeing these same elements emerge now,” Anna Borshchevskaya, Russian policy expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told VOA. Russia’s playbook, put on international display in Syria, is causing staggering human suffering as it is employed in Ukraine.
Tensions with Turkey risk stability in Syria
Moreover, the war in Ukraine risks destabilizing Russia’s fragile ceasefire in northern Syria. After months of clashes, Russia and Turkey – which has backed opposition forces since its military intervention in Syria in 2016 – have found a delicate balance in Idlib province, one of the last major holdouts of rebels fighting the Syrian regime. A ceasefire concluded in March 2020 has largely held, despite regular violations. Increased tensions between Turkey and Russia over Ukraine could risk unsettling the status quo. “I think the war may see an end to relatively cordial Russia-Turkey relations,” said Dr. Natasha Kuhrt, Lecturer in International Peace & Security in the War Studies department and an affiliate of King’s Russia Institute at King’s College London, in an interview with The Paris Globalist. She added: “Russia could simply encourage violations of the ceasefire to antagonize Turkey as payback for siding with Ukraine”.
Turkey has been treading a delicate line in its response to the war in Ukraine. On 27 February, the Turkish government designated the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “war”, a departure from terminology it used previously as per which it was an “unacceptable military invasion”. Beyond the symbolic gesture, the designation is significant as it activates Turkey’s right in wartime to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention. On 28 February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu closed the straits to Russian warships. In an interview with Tracey German, a Professor of Conflict and Security specializing in Russia at King’s College London, Professor German explained how, “Turkey is in a tricky position, seeking to balance its relations with Ukraine and Russia.” She told The Paris Globalist, “It has urged Moscow to end its invasion, describing the operation as unacceptable, and offered itself as a mediator”.
Turkey’s balancing act is a delicate one. On the one hand, Ankara has been rhetorically committed to Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity. “Turkey maintains good relations with Ukraine,” said Dr. Natasha Kuhrt, “especially as Turkey is a major supplier of weapons to Ukraine and also a sponsor of Ukrainian membership of NATO”. Since 2019, Turkey has sold Ukraine armed Bayraktar TB2 drones that have caused lethal damage in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. On 2 March, Ukraine’s defense minister confirmed receiving the latest shipment of armed drones from Turkey. On the other hand, Ankara has grown ever closer to Moscow, despite major disagreements on a range of issues. “Turkey is reliant on Russian natural gas, and Moscow views Turkey as an important energy partner, particularly in terms of bypassing Ukraine as a transit corridor for natural gas, as well as in preventing a rise in US influence in the region,” said Professor Tracey German. Turkey has not so far joined the sanctions being imposed on Russia by the European Union or other NATO countries and seems to remain committed, for now, to finding a middle ground. “I think it will continue to try and mediate between the two countries,” German confirmed. However, a major escalation of tensions between Russia and Turkey over Ukraine could have knock-on effects in Syria. The conflict has long been a point of contention between Russia and the West, with Turkey treading a fragile line between the two.
Assad’s debt to Putin
Russia is using Syria in its campaign against Ukraine. . In a display of threatening posturing on NATO’s southern flank, Russia built up its forces in its Eastern Mediterranean bases. ,. In February, Russia deployed hypersonic missiles and long-range nuclear capable bombers to its Hmeimim military base in Latakia province and boosted its naval forces around its base in Tartous on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. Though there is currently no evidence to suggest Russia would use its Syrian bases to launch attacks on Ukraine, some of its missiles stationed in Latakia reportedly have a range of 2,000 km, meaning they could hypothetically reach Kyiv. However, it has become clear that Russia is using Syrian mercenaries in its fight in Ukraine. According to European intelligence officials, around 150 Syrian troops arrived in Russia on 17 March. Motivated by salary offers multiple times what they could earn in Syria, thousands have reportedly signed up to fight, many from regiments that themselves had been trained by Russia. Most reports, however, remain unconfirmed and it is unclear if and how these troops would actually be deployed to Ukraine. Nevertheless, Syrian President Assad owes a debt to Russia for remaining in power. With Russia’s attention turned to its homefront and potentially thousands of Syrian fighters being airlifted to Ukraine, the situation could leave the Syrian military in a vulnerable position and risks destabilizing the conflict between opposition forces and terrorist actors alike that is still simmering in Syria.
Russia’s war in Ukraine and its intervention in Syria are thus linked in several ways. Syria served as a playground for Putin to build his military capacities and to test the limits of impunity in the international community. It emboldened him politically and militarily and the effects are being seen in the humanitarian tragedy that is being repeated in Ukrainian cities. The war in Ukraine also risks affecting the conflict in Syria as tensions with Turkey and Russia’s reorientation towards its own war could destabilize the fragile status quo that has kept conflict largely simmering below the surface in Syria. Finally, there is also a strategic link between Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine and Syria. Russia’s foreign policy strategy is guided by its objective to assert itself as a great power on the international stage. Putin’s attempts to assert dominance over post-Soviet states and establish its sphere of influence is an integral part of that goal. Russia pursues “recognition of its status as a regional hegemon, which is connected to its claim to be a major power within the global system, which has its own sphere of influence,” said German. In Syria, Putin strives to claim his seat at the center of international diplomacy, as a great power of global relevance. With his invasion of Ukraine, he seeks to legitimize it by proving that he is a regional hegemon.