Impunity for Syria War Crimes Casts Shadow Over Ukraine

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian police stormed her home and dragged her husband away. Her eldest son died in a rain of Syrian authorities shells on her hometown. So like tens of millions of different Syrians, Hanadi Hafisi fled the nation with plans to return when the conflict ended.

A decade later, she’s nonetheless a refugee in Turkey, the place her work at a middle that treats conflict accidents exposes her to a continuing show of the human destruction wrought by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian backers: paralysis, lacking arms and legs, and deep trauma that leaves her sufferers asking why such disasters consumed their lives.

“I don’t know what to inform them once they ask me whether or not they are going to attain justice,” stated Ms. Hafisi, 46. “Critically, what to inform them? That Bashar might be held accountable? That he’ll face trial? In fact not.”

Because the world takes within the grim realities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the once-vibrant neighborhoods bombed out, the civilians killed by shells whereas making an attempt to flee, the hypothesis about whether or not Russia will use chemical weapons — many Syrians have watched with a horrifying sense of déjà vu and a deep foreboding about what lies forward.

The Syrian conflict started 11 years in the past this month with an anti-Assad rebellion that spiraled right into a multisided battle among the many authorities, armed rebels, jihadists and others. A whole bunch of 1000’s of individuals have been killed, tens of millions have fled their houses, and Mr. al-Assad has remained in energy, largely due to the in depth assist he obtained from the person now driving the invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The legacy of Syria’s conflict, and Russia’s position in it, looms massive over Ukraine, providing potential classes to Mr. Putin, analysts stated: that “crimson traces” laid down by the West might be crossed with out long-term penalties; that diplomacy purportedly aimed toward stopping violence can be utilized to distract from it; and that autocrats can do horrible issues and face worldwide sanctions — and nonetheless keep in energy.

A lot of the brutality Mr. al-Assad deployed to quash his foes was documented in actual time and spurred outrage that left many pondering he might by no means get away with it.

He dispatched troopers and armed thugs to cease protests by locking up activists and firing stay ammunition into crowds. Because the opposition took up arms, his troops shelled, bombed and imposed hunger sieges on cities and neighborhoods that supported the rebels.

These actions killed massive numbers of civilians and despatched many extra fleeing for his or her lives. Greater than half of Syria’s prewar inhabitants was displaced through the conflict, and 5.7 million refugees remain outside the country.

In August 2013, Mr. al-Assad’s forces shocked the world by deploying chemical weapons on rebel-held cities close to the capital, Damascus, killing greater than 1,400 individuals, U.S. officers stated.

Many Syrians anticipated that such a blatant violation of worldwide regulation would immediate Western navy intervention, particularly since President Barack Obama had known as the usage of chemical weapons a “crimson line.”

“I used to be certain we had witnessed one thing only a few individuals had skilled earlier than, like those that witnessed Chernobyl or Hiroshima,” recalled Ibrahim Alfawal, 29, who survived the chemical assault and stated it had felt like “judgment day.”

However he was shocked when the US didn’t intervene. Mr. al-Assad’s forces finally took management of the cities that had been gassed, seeming to pay no value for his use of forbidden arms.

That appeared to indicate that Mr. al-Assad might rely on impunity, Mr. Alfawal stated, and assaults by Syrian forces on civilian infrastructure — together with faculties, hospitals, neighborhoods and bakeries the place households had lined as much as purchase bread — solely escalated.

In 2015, Mr. Putin despatched Russian forces to assist Mr. al-Assad’s beleaguered military, and shortly Russian officers had been advising Syrian forces and Russian jets had been dropping bombs on Syrian cities — having fun with the identical impunity that Mr. al-Assad appeared to have.

In Ukraine, Russia has used disinformation campaigns just like these it pioneered in Syria, the place it falsely branded opposition activists as members of Al Qaeda and accused the rebels of launching the chemical assaults as “false flag” operations accountable the Syrian authorities.

“They’re taking the identical idea they utilized in Syria, to lie and to stay to it,” Mr. Alfawal stated of Russia’s strategy to Ukraine.

The chemical assaults in Syria continued. Along with two that killed massive numbers of individuals — within the village of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and east of Damascus in 2018 — there have been not less than 350 different assaults with chemical substances, in keeping with Tobias Schneider, a researcher on the International Public Coverage Institute in Berlin.

Most of these used chlorine, which isn’t labeled as a chemical weapon however can be utilized as such to terrify civilians and encourage them to flee.

Whereas no proof has surfaced that Russian forces used chemical weapons in Syria, researchers imagine that Mr. Putin enabled Mr. al-Assad to take action.

“It’s completely sure that the Russian authorities not less than is aware of and sure facilitated the usage of chemical weapons by the Syrians, principally chlorine assaults,” Mr. Schneider stated.

There aren’t any indications that chemical weapons have been utilized in Ukraine, however watching the conflict there, many Syrians see indicators that Mr. Putin is using elements of the Syria playbook.

The Russians “are prepared to devour the inexperienced and the dry,” stated Radwan Alhomsy, a Syrian activist in southern Turkey, utilizing an Arabic idiom which means to destroy all the pieces. “They don’t care concerning the worldwide group or anything. We noticed that in Syria. Burning faculties isn’t new to us. It’s land they wish to take, and they’re going to take it.”

European analysts level out the variations between the wars in Syria and Ukraine that would result in totally different Western responses. In contrast to Mr. Putin, Mr. al-Assad fought to regain management of his personal nation, not take over one among his neighbors. In contrast to Syria, Russia is a nuclear-armed energy, complicating the problem of navy intervention.

And whereas the US and its European allies largely let Mr. al-Assad get away with utilizing chemical weapons within the Center East, Mr. Putin’s doing so on the European continent would almost certainly trigger larger alarm and elicit a stiffer response.

“If Putin thinks that he’ll be handled like al-Assad, he’s unsuitable as a result of he’s not al-Assad and this isn’t Syria,” stated Patricia Lewis, director of the worldwide safety program at Chatham Home.

Nonetheless, Mr. Putin might take some solace from Mr. al-Assad’s survival: how the West went on mistakenly believing that Mr. al-Assad’s fall was unavoidable, and the way he has clung to energy regardless of sanctions which have strangled his economic system and impoverished his individuals.

Emile Hokayem, a Center East analyst on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research, warned of two methods utilized in Syria that the Russians might make use of in Ukraine.

One was Russia’s engagement in worldwide diplomacy aimed toward ending the violence as a method of distracting the West from the conflict on the bottom. One other was the deliberate creation of a refugee disaster to lavatory down Europe and sap its assets.

“Making a humanitarian disaster is a part of the conflict technique, not a secondary impact, as a result of that is the way you shift the burden on to the opposite facet,” he stated.

Many Syrian refugees are watching the Ukraine conflict from impoverished camps throughout the Center East or from European cities the place they’re struggling to start out new lives.

Whereas some really feel bitter concerning the heat proven to fleeing Ukrainians, the Syrians additionally recall their very own conflict, and hope the Ukrainians will fare higher than they did.

“We had been left alone to face our future,” stated Mansour Abu al-Kheir, who survived two chemical assaults east of Damascus earlier than fleeing as a refugee to southern Turkey. “I hope this gained’t occur to the Ukrainians.”

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

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