BEIRUT – From a tent in the rebel-held Syrian pocket, Ahmad Rakan followed closely news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than two years ago, a Russian airstrike destroyed his home in a nearby village during a months-long Syrian government offensive backed by firepower from Moscow that drove him and dozens thousands more from their homes.
“We feel their pain more than anyone,” he said of Ukrainian civilians currently under Russian bombardment.
Over the past seven years, Syrians like Rakan have experienced first-hand the military might of Russia as it strikes opposition strongholds, brokers mass surrender deals and deploys military police across their country, which practically made it a Russian protectorate over the Mediterranean.
Observers say Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria and the impunity with which it has been carried out emboldened Vladimir Putin. They say it gave him a new foothold in the Middle East from which he could assert Russian power globally and paved the way for his attack on Ukraine.
“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,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, Syrian journalist and editor. diplomatic chief for Syrian affairs at the London newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
Putin “believes that America is regressing and China’s role is increasing and that Europe is divided and preoccupied with its internal concerns…so he decided to intervene,” he said.
Moscow’s decision in 2015 to join the war in Syria was its first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of the federation. He saved President Bashar Assad’s government and turned the tide of the war in his favor, allowing the Syrian leader to abruptly regain control of much of Syria. Russian airstrikes often indiscriminately hit hospitals, schools and markets.
The war-torn country has become a testing ground for Russian weapons and the tactics it can now apply in Ukraine.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior researcher at the Washington Institute specializing in Russia’s policy toward the Middle East, said Russia has deployed a “multi-domain” approach in Syria, including long-range precision weapons and campaigns. large-scale bombardment, as well as cyber warfare, disinformation and the use of paramilitary forces.
The deployment of its air power “came to define the evolution of Russia’s mode of warfare and Syria was a particularly important illustration of this development”, she said.
Moscow has also shown a shrewd diplomatic touch in Syria, creating deals with the West that have forced implicit acceptance of its intervention. He created joint patrols with NATO member Turkey who supported the Syrian rebels, to impose truces in certain regions. He established agreements with Israel that allowed the latter to carry out airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria. He set up a so-called deconfliction line with the United States to avoid crashes between US and Russian planes flying in Syrian skies.
At the same time, he sought to defend Assad on the international stage, dismissing as inventions Assad’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. In Syria, Russia has added a soft power campaign. In some regions, festivals have been organized to popularize Russian cultureRussian national songs were broadcast on Syrian television, self-interested propaganda was launched, and hot meals were served to civilians.
Max, a Syrian-Ukrainian dual national from Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, recalls working for a week as a social media troll spreading the “truth” about Russia’s positive actions in Syria. He and other Russian-speaking Syrians worked from an office set up at a local university.
A member of Assad’s Alawite ruling sect, he said he and others in his hometown were grateful when Russia intervened militarily in 2015, particularly when Islamic extremists approached the region.
“Then the Russians came and the front line was pushed back,” he told The Associated Press in a phone call from Ukraine, where he is now stuck in an Airbnb in a residential area. from Kyiv.
Max, who now works for an international organization in Lebanon, had flown to Ukraine to update his personal documents when he found himself trapped there by the Russian invasion. He spoke on the condition that his full name not be used for his security.
Today, Max no longer buys the Russian narrative. Many in his hometown in Syria, however, support Russia’s war in Ukraine, as Moscow continues to mount a sophisticated disinformation effort over its invasion.
Images from Ukraine, including the massive and heartbreaking flight of civiliansstir up intense and conflicting emotions among Syrians at home and refugees around the world.
Resentment is deepest in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last Syrian opposition stronghold, where Russian airstrikes continue to this day. In a statement on Monday, the opposition civil defense group, known as the White Helmets Group, deplored Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
“It pains us enormously to know that the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians,” he said, lamenting what he said was a lack of support from the international community to demand accounts to Russia in Syria and elsewhere.
“Instead of defending international norms, such as those against the use of chemical weapons, the international community has tried to find ways to cooperate with Russia and to this day regards Russia as a willing and essential partner in the diplomacy,” he said.
Borshchevskaya said the lesson Putin learned from Syria was that “the West will not oppose his military interventions” and that it gave him success to build on.
“Appetite comes with eating, and with each intervention it has become more and more brazen, culminating in the tragedy we are now seeing unfold in Ukraine,” she said. “Just as what happened in Syria did not end in Syria, what is happening in Ukraine will not end in Ukraine.”
Rakan now lives in a tent with his wife and three children near the Turkish border, where he runs a car parts store. He said he hoped a Russian defeat in Ukraine could have positive repercussions for the Syrian opposition.
“We pray to God for the victory of the Ukrainian people and we hope that this war will mark the end of Russia,” he said.
“Maybe they (the Ukrainians) can achieve the victory that was not achieved in Syria.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.