BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian police stormed her home and dragged her husband away. Her eldest son died in a hail of Syrian government shells at her birthplace. So like millions of other Syrians, Hanadi Hafisi fled the country with plans to return when the war was over.
Ten years later, she is still a refugee in Turkey, where her work at a center that treats war injuries exposes her to a constant display of the human destruction wrought by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian lenders: paralysis, missing hands and legs, and a deep trauma that makes her patients wonder why such disasters consumed their lives.
“I don’t know what to tell them if they ask me if they will get justice,” said Ms. Hafisi, 46. “Seriously, what should I tell them? That Bashar will be held accountable? That he will stand trial? Of course not .”
As the world takes in the grim reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the once-vibrant neighborhoods bombed, the civilians killed by shells as they tried to flee, the speculation about whether Russia will use chemical weapons — many Syrians have watched with a horrific sense of déjà vu and a deep foreboding of what lies ahead.
The Syrian war started 11 years ago this month with an anti-Assad uprising that turned into a multi-faceted 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 thanks in large part to the extensive support he received from the man now behind the invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin Russia.
The legacy of the war in Syria, and Russia’s role in it, looms large over Ukraine and offers potential lessons to Putin, analysts said: that “red lines” established by the West can be crossed without major consequences; that diplomacy supposedly aimed at stopping violence can be used to divert attention; and that autocrats can do terrible things and face international sanctions — and still stay in power.
Much of the brutality Mr al-Assad used to defeat his enemies was documented in real time and caused outrage that many believed he would never get away with it.
He sent soldiers and armed thugs to stop the protests by jailing activists and firing live ammunition into crowds. As the opposition took up arms, its troops shelled, bombed and laid starvation sieges on cities and neighborhoods supporting the rebels.
These actions killed large numbers of civilians and many had to flee 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 by deploying chemical weapons in rebel-held towns near the capital Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, US officials said.
Many Syrians expected such a blatant violation of international law to lead to Western military intervention, especially since President Barack Obama had called the use of chemical weapons a “red line.”
“I was sure we had experienced something that very few people had experienced before, like those who experienced Chernobyl or Hiroshima,” recalls Ibrahim Alfawal, 29, who survived the chemical attack and said it felt like “the day of judgment”.
But he was shocked when the United States did not intervene. The troops of Mr. al-Assad eventually took control of the cities that had been gassed, and appeared to pay no price for his use of banned weapons.
That seemed to show that Mr al-Assad could count on impunity, Mr Alfawal said, and escalated attacks by Syrian troops on civilian infrastructure — including schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and bakeries where families queued to buy bread. only.
In 2015, Mr Putin sent Russian troops to aid Mr al-Assad’s beleaguered army, and soon Russian officers advised the Syrian armed forces and Russian fighter jets dropped bombs on Syrian cities – with the same impunity that Mr al-Assad appeared to be to have. †
In Ukraine, Russia has used disinformation campaigns similar to those it pioneered in Syria, where it falsely labeled opposition activists as members of Al Qaeda and accused the rebels of launching the chemical attacks as “false flag” operations to target the Syrian government. to blame.
“They are using the same concept they used in Syria to lie and stick with it,” Mr Alfawal said of Russia’s approach to Ukraine.
The chemical attacks in Syria continued. In addition to two that have killed large numbers of people — in the village of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and east of Damascus in 2018 — there are according to Tobias Schneider, a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
Most of them used chlorine, which is not classified as a chemical weapon but can be used as such to frighten civilians and encourage them to flee.
While no evidence has surfaced that Russian forces have used chemical weapons in Syria, investigators believe 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,” said Mr Schneider.
There is no indication that chemical weapons have been used in Ukraine, but seeing the war there many Syrians see signs that Mr Putin is using parts of the Syrian script.
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The Russians “are ready to devour the green and the dry,” said Radwan Alhomsy, a Syrian activist in southern Turkey, using an Arabic idiom meaning to destroy everything. “They don’t care about the international community or anything else. We saw that in Syria. The burning of schools is not new to us. It’s land they want to take, and they will take it.”
European analysts point to the differences between the wars in Syria and Ukraine that could lead to different Western reactions. Unlike Mr Putin, Mr al-Assad fought to regain control of his own country, not to take over any of his neighbors. Unlike Syria, Russia is a nuclear-armed power, which complicates the question of military intervention.
And while the United States and its European allies largely let Mr. al-Assad get away with using chemical weapons in the Middle East, Mr. Putin’s doing on the European continent would most likely trigger more alarm and provoke a tougher response.
“If Putin thinks he will be treated as al-Assad, he is wrong because he is not al-Assad and this is not Syria,” said Patricia Lewis, director of Chatham House’s international security program.
Yet Mr Putin could take some solace in Mr al-Assad’s survival: how the West continued to mistakenly believe that Mr al-Assad’s fall was inevitable, and how he has clung to power despite sanctions who 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 being used in Syria that the Russians could adopt in Ukraine.
One was Russia’s involvement in international diplomacy aimed at ending the violence as a way to distract the West from the war on the ground. Another example was the deliberate creation of a refugee crisis to bog down Europe and exhaust its resources.
“Creating a humanitarian catastrophe is part of the war strategy, not a secondary effect, because that’s how you shift 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 are bitter about the warmth shown to fleeing Ukrainians, the Syrians also remember their own war and hope that the Ukrainians will fare better than they did.
“We were left alone to face our fate,” said Mansour Abu al-Kheir, who survived two chemical attacks east of Damascus before fleeing to southern Turkey as a refugee. “I hope this will not happen to the Ukrainians.”
Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from London, and Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, Lebanon.