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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

The west stood back and watched in Syria – it must not do the same in Ukraine

The aftermath of regime bombing in Termanin, north of Idlib, Syria, 22 February.
‘Bashar al-Assad has continued to bomb hospitals and schools in a macabre, medieval-style scorched-earth policy.’ The aftermath of regime bombing in Termanin, north of Idlib, Syria, 22 February. Photograph: Moawia Atrash/Zuma Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The Syria crisis continues unnoticed. It holds key lessons for the west about Putin yet it has gone virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world. War crimes and crimes against humanity continue in the Russian-sponsored dictatorship, even as some misguided leaders want to usher Bashar al-Assad, the architect of these crimes, back into acceptable society.

We can rest assured that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, unlike Assad, is not welcoming Putin with open arms. But in responding to the Ukraine emergency, there are lessons the west can and should learn from the situation in Syria.

Since the UN removed Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile in 2014, Assad has continued to bomb hospitals and schools, and burn villages to the ground in a macabre, medieval-style scorched-earth policy. Mercifully, we have not seen chemical weapons used since April 2019, but Syria today is a Russian state in all but name, and Assad a puppet dictator with strings very clearly tugged from Moscow. Idlib, a province in northwest Syria, is the only region still free of the tyranny, but with millions of malnourished souls trapped there, and Assad throwing in incendiary devices to smoke them out as you would vermin, it still resembles hell on earth. Even the UN has turned its back on Idlib, giving aid to Assad and his wife to distribute as they see fit.

Syria now represents a major Russian and Iranian presence on the edge of Europe; and if Ukraine also falls, the balance of power will very much shift eastwards. With too many European countries reliant on Russian gas, the current global instability began in Damascus. An emboldened Russia buoyed up by high oil prices seems much more willing to face off with Nato than it did a few years ago, when its antiquated military was no match for western tanks. While the rest of us have cut our militaries to the bone, relying on electronics and space to fight the next war, Russia has modernised its armoured might, now on show around Ukraine – there is a unique quality in mass and heavy armour, which no cyberwarrior is going to vaporise.

Syria shows what happens when you turn a blind eye and are too heavily influenced by peaceniks. Those of us involved in interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 30 years have our issues with overstepping the mark in those places, but we look at Syria and know we should have done better. That knowledge should inform our response to Putin’s aggression now.

It is clear when discussing Syria with Syrians from Idlib and regime-held areas that everybody has suffered. At least those in Idlib are getting support through Turkey, and there are some innovative projects being funded by European countries. Many hospitals and clinics in Idlib now have solar power to run their generators and surgical theatres, as there is no fuel and the power network was destroyed years ago. There is an electric car, also powered by solar energy, distributing medicines and Covid vaccines – when they are occasionally available – around Idlib. In a remarkable twist that would only happen in war, some of these Syrian medics who have developed a viable medical system under the most trying and demanding circumstances are now offering to help in Afghanistan.

The Syrian people have shown resilience and innovation beyond compare, even as they have been let down again and again. First, the west did not intervene when the regime started attacking its own people. Then, in response to chemical weapon use, illegal under every rule of war, the US declared a red line on their use – but failed to act when that line was crossed. And finally, we stood by as Russia and Iran muscled their way across Syria to create a forward operation base on our doorstep.

Our leaders will do well to remember this and be strong and resilient to protect Ukraine. I cannot think that a few sanctions on a few banks and billionaires is going to perturb Putin. He only understands strength and power – it’s time to show our steel.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons expert, fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge and an adviser to the Union of Syrian Medical Charities

  • Join a panel of journalists, hosted by Michael Safi, for a livestreamed event on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. On Thursday 3 March, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 12pm PST | 3pm EST. Book tickets here

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