The West loses the fight for humanitarian values and international norms to the Kremlin.
Now no one can say what the situation would be like in Syria if Vladimir Putin had not defended Bashar al-Assad’s regime in autumn of 2015. At that time, the Syrian government did not control much of the territory, and opposition groups were firmly entrenched in the outskirts of Damascus, in Eastern Guta. Seemed like Assad would lose his power only due to the small effort of his opponents. The Kremlin’s intervention reversed the situation.
It remains not clear why Russia decided to become a direct participant of the conflict, the extreme complexity of which only creates new problems for numerous parties involved. There are no direct Russian interests. It was believed that the Syrian map could in some way assist Putin in his attempt to break out of international isolation after the Crimean and Donbas tricks. But then another objective became clear.
2015 was a record year for refugees seeking safe places in cosy European countries. According to various estimates, from 1 to 1,8 million refugees had fled to the EU this year – an extreme wave compared to the previous year with only about 280,000 migrants. In the general flow, the largest was the groups of refugees from Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, from Syria. The brutal civil war and the vigorous actions of the jihads of ISIL have displaced the masses of Syrian civilians. Europe has responded with a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of right nationalist forces. The latter is known to be a favourite environment for spreading the pro-Putin views and pro-Russian positions that boil down to the theses on the crisis of the world order, democracy and Western values. The extreme-right groups see Vladimir Putin’s figure as a leader who defied the West and modern European values in particular.
One of the Kremlin’s key goals of its decision to engage in the Syrian conflict and contribute to the invasion of Europe was to question the effectiveness of European democracy, to strengthen the political influence of nationalists, isolationists and Eurosceptics, and to split European and Western unity. Russian aviation, located at Syrian airfields, got down to work.
On September 30, 2015, the Russian Air Force began to launch strikes, from which only a small number was directed at positions of ISIL opposition groups. In Idlib, Hami, Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and Deraa, rockets and bombs were aimed at mosques, hospitals, and schools. Women’s consultation and children’s hospital in Aazaz city, hospitals in the cities of Khadir, field hospitals in the Etarib, Bab and Sermin districts, medical centre in the village of Kafr Nabul were among the goals. The hospital of the Doctors Without Borders organization in Maarat an-Numan was also a stroke. Schools were destroyed in Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus, Raki, Deir az-Zor, in the districts of Khur, Kefer Dael, Kefer Maya, Manak and Yakid al-Adas. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Russian aviation made 163 airstrikes on Syrian civilian objects during its first months in Syria. By January 26, 2016, 815 civilians had been killed. And that was just the beginning.
Announcements of new casualties have become a regular feature of news media across the world. On April 28, 2016, as a result of an attack on Aleppo, which was then held by opposition forces, Russian missiles stroke the hospital, killing about 30 people and injuring twice as many: medical personnel, women, and children. One day before that, more than a hundred people died from airstrikes on Aleppo.
Even on this background, the news of the death of the UN humanitarian convoy and the Syrian Red Crescent was striking. On September 9, 2016, 31 trucks left the Syrian government-controlled area in Aleppo, and after crossing the front line, a column was attacked near the settlement of Urum al-Kubr. The route was coordinated with the Russian and Syrian military, and a ceasefire was declared in the area of the humanitarian operation. However, it didn’t help to prevent the strike. A warehouse, 18 trucks of 31 and nine tons of medicines, products and equipment were destroyed, and two dozen of humanitarian and volunteer workers were killed. The Russian Defense Ministry denied Russia’s involvement in the war crime, but according to US intelligence, the strike was inflicted with a pair of Russian Su-24. There were no consequences for Russia.
There are only three cases when the aggressive actions of the Russian military in Syria have been repelled. On November 25, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down an aircraft of the Russian Air Force, and the pilot Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov was shot in the air after an ejection. Before that, the Russians attacked the settlements of Syrian Turkomans in the northern part of the country. Turkey takes care of Turkomans as it considers them a close ethnic group. After that, relations between Ankara and Moscow deteriorated for a while. On January 14, 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered to launch a missile strike on Syrian military sites after the usage of chemical weapons against opposition forces became known. These seemed to be Syrian planes, but they were flying from the airfields where they were based together with Russian planes. On February 7, 2018, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group attempted to break into an oil refinery defended by the Kurds and US special forces near Deir Ez-Zor. The true losses among Russians after the American-led fire are still unknown. On February 27, 2020, Russian aviation destroyed a column of Turkish troops in Idlib province, and after that Erdogan ordered the army to destroy Syrian units by launching an operation named Shield Spring. But there were no direct strikes on Russian bases in Syria.
As we can see, only the first example indirectly mentions a reaction to Russia’s actions against the civilian population. In other cases, the answer was either for the attack on the military, or the Syrian pro-Assad forces responded for Russia. It seems like it is nothing to do with Russia.
Such impunity leads to the new cases of the destruction of innocent citizens by the Russian expeditionary corps and the rise of new waves of refugees. According to the UN, on February 26, 2020, ten schools and kindergartens were struck in one day. Since the beginning of the attacks on Idlib province, which started last spring, 50 to 60 health facilities were destroyed. Russian aviation has attacked 14 refugee camps. George Soros refers to this data in his emotional column published in Financial Times on March 4. Financial expert and philanthropist points out that the role of the UN Security Council permanent member allows Russia to exercise its veto power over crimes committed in Syria: it has been used 14 times since the beginning of the war.
“In 2014, I urged Europe to realize the threat posed by Russia to its strategic interests,” – says Soros, – “however, in a different context and geographical area. Russia then attacked Ukraine, understanding that Europe would try to prevent a confrontation with Moscow. But what is happening today in Idlib has the same scenario. Europe avoids a conflict with Russia, though it should oppose it because of its policy in Syria. By focusing on the refugee crisis created by Russia, Europe is struggling with the symptoms, not the cause of the disease”.
The West seems to be incapable of defending the humanitarian values and international norms that are brutally trampled by Putin. On May 9, a lavish World War II parade will be held in Moscow, and the Russian leader, who recently announced his plans to prolong his ruling after 2024, is inviting the leaders of the countries which were the members of the anti-Hitler coalition. This is the highest peak of sacrilege on the part of the Russian president, who was the first to wage war in Europe after 1945 and daily destroys civilians in Syria, chasing thousands of refugees to Europe. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that some Western leaders will accept this invitation. This fact makes us believe that Hitlerism was not finally defeated 75 years ago.
Leonid Shvets for “Promote Ukraine”