Russian troops have been training extensively with live fire in Syria. There, Putin’s Army turned the war around from 2015 in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, when his regime was headed for defeat. Tested in Syria, the model of war of total destruction of the resistance, with prolonged sieges of cities that were leveled by aircraft after being emptied through humanitarian corridors, now threatens to be reproduced in Ukraine.
The siege of the rebel stronghold of East Gouta, in Damascus province, lasted more than five years. It was marked by indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population, including markets and hospitals, and by attacks with chemical weapons, until the resistance was finally overcome by hunger. The conflict in Syria celebrates 11 years of hostilities this Tuesday, marked by war crimes and crimes against humanity, which have claimed around half a million deaths and have displaced half of the inhabitants from their homes. And now Russia is taking advantage of its preparation. On the Syrian battlefield, it has been able to freely experiment with different types of weapons, urban combat techniques with irregular militias, and military disinformation strategies.
The siege of eastern Aleppo – an area that has been the capital of the opposition to El Asad since 2012 – lasted for more than six months until the last days of 2016. Analysts of the war in Syria, whose fronts have been stalemated from the beginning of the pandemic, they now observe in Ukraine a pattern similar to the one that Russia promoted in the Arab country.
“After its intervention in 2015, Moscow launched a strategy aimed at eliminating all the rebel groups that opposed El Assad. Despite committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by besieging cities, imposing collective punishment and systematically attacking civilian targets, the international community remained unmoved. It seems evident that this passivity has now emboldened Russia to extend the same methods as in Syria,” says Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio, professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, and a specialist in the Syrian conflict.
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empty the cities
“Russia is not interested in the negotiation because it is not ready to give up its historical demands in Ukraine. The negotiations undertaken so far have only advanced, and timidly, in the establishment of humanitarian corridors in some besieged cities. kyiv can become a new Aleppo”, warns Professor Álvarez-Ossorio, who is about to publish Syria, the black decade (2011-2021), in Catarata edition, his second book on the endless war in the Arab country. In his opinion, “Moscow seems to want the civilian population to leave the cities in order to hit the pockets of resistance more intensely, which necessarily implies the intensification of bombing and the systematic destruction of all those who do not surrender” .
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma (USA), warns: “Air power is decisive. Russian President Vladimir Putin will rely more and more on his air superiority to destroy the Ukrainian resistance. As he comes under increasing pressure to complete his mission, the indiscriminate bombings will become more abundant.”
“Russia is not yet using aviation on the same scale as in Syria. But he resorts to mortar fire, tanks and artillery, mainly because it is cheaper. The United States mainly used artillery in the siege of Raqqa (eastern Syria) to defeat ISIS in its Syrian capital in 2017″, specifies Landis, one of the international experts who most closely follows the Syrian war, to underline that Russia has not been the only power to resort to the total destruction of enemy resistance in that conflict.
in his studio Middle East and North Africa before the war in Ukraine: communicating vessels, Eduard Soler i Lecha, a researcher at CIDOB, considers that the “decisive contribution to the survival of El Assad should have given Putin even greater confidence in the power of his military capabilities.” For this expert from the international affairs research center based in Barcelona, ”Syria has been the testing ground for the war crimes that Ukraine is now suffering.”
How to prevent further violations of international humanitarian law? “The imposition of a no-fly zone was one of the main demands of the opposition groups and the Syrian rebel forces, but it was never contemplated by the international community. In the case of Ukraine, I see it as hardly feasible”, the professor at the Complutense University of Madrid expands his analysis in an exchange of messages.
“An exclusion zone would be equivalent to a NATO declaration of war against Russia. The US only established it in the Kurdish region and with the sole objective of destroying ISIS (Islamic State, in its English acronym) ”, agrees the American professor in an emailed response.
Depending on how long the Ukrainian resistance remains standing, the strategy of humanitarian corridors will predictably intensify, such as those that served to empty eastern Aleppo of tens of thousands of inhabitants before being devastated, the analysts consulted maintain.
“In Syria there were sieges due to hunger and barrel bombs (drums loaded with explosives dropped from helicopters) against civilian targets after the US ignored its own red lines (in the 2013 East Gouta chemical attack)”, he thirds through TwitterCharles Lister, director of the programs on Syria and Extremism of the Middle East Institute, based in Washington, to highlight a lack of Western will to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict, and which is now resurfacing in Ukraine.
The inconceivable levy of Putin’s foreign legion
Vladimir Putin gave the green light Thursday for the enlistment of up to 16,000 fighters from the Middle East to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine. Although the Russian president assured that Moscow was not going to pay the volunteers, the Syrian Army has announced that they will charge up to 3,000 dollars a month in an open recruitment campaign on the website of the Fourth Division, one of the regime’s elite units. Bashar el Asad, according to the informative digital portal Middle East Eye.
His destination would be Donbas, the Russian-speaking eastern region occupied in part by Russia since 2014. Putin says he is responding to the declarations of the Ukrainian president, Volodimir Zelensky, about the incorporation of 16,000 international combatants to a Foreign Legion attached to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The Syrian Army has relied on Russian aerial bombardment and the shock force of Tehran-linked militias (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Hezbollah) to regain control over two-thirds of the national territory. The scenario that he would have to face for urban guerrilla tactics and, above all, the climate in Ukraine have little to do with the battlefields in Syria.
“It would not be the first time that Russia has mobilized Syrian forces to fight in other conflicts (such as in Libya). However, I am much more cautious about the possible mobilization of Syrian soldiers loyal to El Asad, among other reasons, because the army is completely decimated after 11 years of war and is only in a position to send testimonial aid”, he warns from Madrid. Professor Álvarez-Ossorio.
Russia has in the past relied on Arab auxiliary forces for its operations in Syria, such as the al-Quds Brigade, of Palestinian refugees, and the so-called Desert Hawks, which operate in the smugglers’ passes. Both stood out for their thrust in the battle of Aleppo.
“My instinct inclines me to be cautious. It is very possible that it is war propaganda, but it could become a reality”, adds the American professor Landis. “The Ukrainian government is welcoming a large number of foreign fighters. The similarities with Syria are increasing”, he adds.
the analyst Charles Lister questions also on Twitter the usefulness of the Syrian forces for Putin. “If the Assad regime sends troops to Ukraine, they will be nothing more than cannon fodder in battle in an environment that is completely alien to them,” he stresses.
The information just released by SANA gives an idea of the war propaganda machinery that has been activated from Moscow to kyiv, passing through Damascus. The Syrian state news agency warns of the alleged recruitment in Ukraine of 450 jihadist fighters of the former Al Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, displaced from Idlib (the last rebel stronghold), through Turkish territory, to the Ukrainian front .
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