As Ukraine defends itself against Russian forces, it receives unexpected help from Syrian and Syrian-American doctors, lawyers and activists who have witnessed the brutality inflicted by regime-supporting Russian ground and air forces of Bashar al Assad over the past 11 years. .
“We are now seeing the same tactics in Ukraine as in Syria,” said Amjad Rass, a former doctor from Aleppo who heads the Syrian American Medical Society, which places doctors in Ukrainian facilities. “We can help our colleagues in Ukraine suffering from war-related injuries, we can help them deal with the siege, mass displacement, attacks on health care and document this.
The Ukrainian-Syrian Network was recently formed to pair Syrians and Syrian-Americans with skills relevant to the humanitarian effort on the ground. Coordinator Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, uses her Ukrainian connections to organize volunteer placements and help secure visas as well as translators, transportation and housing inside the country.
The network connected Syrian lawyers experienced in investigating and documenting war crimes with Ukrainian lawyers, she said. They also connect outside advocacy groups that fight pervasive Russian disinformation in Ukraine and elsewhere.
“There are things that Syrians can easily understand, especially if it’s cluster bombs or mass graves,” Lautman said, “things that Syrians have been through before – and Ukrainians don’t. have not yet”.
The use of chemical weapons on the battlefield is another.
Dr. Mohamed Tennari, a Syrian doctor who previously treated injuries from chemical attacks, recently used Lautman’s network to travel to Ukraine to help prepare doctors for the worst. When asked if he thought Russia would use chemical weapons, Tennari’s response was grim.
“If the Russians feel in a bad situation, they can do anything. There’s a big chance they could use it,” Tennari said.
Lautman followed Russian media closely during the height of the Syrian conflict and saw clear indicators of chemical attacks to come. We are now seeing these indicators in Ukraine, she said.
“They laid the groundwork,” she said, equipping Russian troops with chemical agent antidotes and spreading false claims that Ukraine has biological weapons.
The most obvious similarity between the two wars is the bombing of civilian infrastructure, including schools, apartment buildings and hospitals, according to humanitarian and military experts familiar with the Syrian war. Deliberately targeting civilians is considered a war crime under international law.
Samer Attar, a Chicago orthopedic surgeon who volunteered in Syria after learning that hospitals there had been bombed during the war, entered Ukraine last week on a similar assignment.
Speaking via an encrypted app from Ukraine, he described a man injured in a mine blast. The injury reminded him of a child he had cared for in Syria, where such high-velocity injuries were common. The child had fragments of someone else’s bones lodged in his skin from an airstrike on his school.
The wound “looks exactly like the ones you find anywhere in Syria,” he said from a hospital in the Brovary region outside Kyiv.
Ukraine says 158 children were killed during the war, while the United Nations says 59 died. The World Health Organization has reported 105 Russian attacks affecting healthcare facilities in Ukraine.
“On a humanitarian level, thanks to what we have seen in Syria, we know what the Russians are going to do and how brutal they are going to be,” said Shadi Martini, executive director of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. and former hospital. manager in Aleppo who escaped in 2012. “Mariupol was expected for us. We know what the Russians are capable of.
As a tactic, bombing is meant to cause starvation, he said.
Based on Russian actions in Syria, Russian troops are then likely to show up with food to save the population they just bombed, said US Army Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a former porter. -word of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“In a few weeks, we’ll probably see Russian infantry carrying sacks of grain and infant formula and handing them over to civilians in these eastern towns to show that they’re the good guys,” he said. “They want to paint the picture that the Ukrainian government has abandoned its citizens.”
As in Syria, even agreed ceasefires and humanitarian corridors are part of Russia’s propaganda campaign to portray itself as saviors, said Carsten Wieland, a German diplomat and senior UN consultant.
“This whole process of corridors and so on is part of it because all of a sudden the heart of the war is 100,000 civilians trapped in Mariupol,” he said. “And Russia is trying to use it for its own propaganda.”
Wieland said that could include the Russians “distributing their Russian-branded humanitarian aid packages in Mariupol to starving civilians who have no choice but to accept it or opening corridors east – to Russia – where Russian cameras stand and say ‘look, the Ukrainians are fleeing their own Ukrainian government.
Portraying Russians as humanitarian liberators is a disinformation tactic the Kremlin has also used in Syria, where Russian officials have justified the bombing of cities like Homs and Aleppo by claiming to fight Islamic extremism.
“Russia would claim that there were terrorist groups in these urban areas,” Caggins said. “Although there was a presence of some terrorists, this can in no way explain the tens of thousands of civilians killed and maimed by the Russians.”
In Ukraine, Russian authorities claim to be fighting the Nazis, a label likely to appeal to the Russian population, Caggins said.
“Now they’ve employed social media trolls, paid agitators, fake media personalities, fake experts and fake anti-imperialist influencers… It’s basically rinse and repeat,” Caggins said. . “They did it in Syria. They got away with it. They do it in Ukraine.
Yet there are differences.
Retired Army Brig. General Peter Zwack, the senior defense attaché at the US Russian Embassy from 2012 to 2014, says the Russians mistakenly convinced themselves that their success in Syria would translate to Ukraine.
In Syria, the Russian-backed Assad regime and the Russian military have maintained almost unchallenged control of the skies. Ukrainian forces, however, had considerable success shooting down Russian fighter jets at low and medium altitudes, Zwack said.
At the root of Russia’s overconfidence, Zwack said, are incorrect and deep-seated prejudices.
“The Russian authorities have these fundamental beliefs: Ukraine is not a real nation and they are not real people – they are part of us,” Zwack said. “This dismissive aspect manifested itself in military planning. They thought winning a war in Ukraine would be a walk in the park.
For recent volunteers who have spent time in war-torn Syria, revisiting a war zone has not been easy. For Attar, who consults Ukrainian doctors on the best ways to deal with war casualties, the trip to Ukraine also meant revisiting the personal stresses of war-torn Syria.
“I had to revisit that fear: air strikes, another seat. But… there is a strength and a power of the community that helped me to overcome this fear. Especially when you’re in a hospital where everyone, whatever their role, had only one job: to help and save others.
By Eve Samson
Capital News Service
Editor’s Note: Eve Sampson is a former US Army Captain who deployed to Syria in 2018.