Photo by Sergei Chuzavkov
Artillery Row

War without end: Putin’s Syria model

The war in Ukraine shows tragic parallels to the earlier conflict

As Vladmir Putin’s war for Ukraine enters its third month, his choice of General to lead the next murderous round speaks volumes about how he wants to win. How little he cares about the West’s condemnation of his war crimes, even genocide. Putin can envisage war for months, if not years to come.

General Aleksandr Dvornikov, an old-school Soviet Marshal described by comrades as a “blood and soil Russian nationalist”, is a graduate of military academies created by Stalin. He was taught — and propounds — the doctrine of obliterating civilian targets as a means to gaining battleground momentum and control, come what may and at whatever price to humanity. He is ready to do whatever it takes in Ukraine: towns razed to the ground and civilians targeted at home and at work.

The General made his name, not to mention his close working relationship with Putin, by leading Russia’s successful intervention in the Syrian civil war. In 2015 the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad faced defeat against rebels who launched a popular uprising in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. If ever Putin laid down a marker of future ambition, it was surely in Syria — with General Dvornikov.

Aleppo’s hospitals became his particular target

The General’s calling card was the ruthless extermination of civilian populations in the cities that rose up: Aleppo, Homs, Daraa. Dvornikov targeted hospitals, schools, bread lines and even bus queues with savage air strikes, terrorising populations into submission. All the strikes were co-ordinated by him from an air base in Western Syria. In his first few weeks in charge, his forces killed hundreds of jihadist fighters, but, according to independent monitoring groups, many more civilians with cluster bombs.

As for the strategy, the General went on the record in 2018 — by which time he had been made a Hero of the Russian Federation, anointed by Putin himself. Firepower was key, he said, citing air strikes, long-range artillery, missiles fired from warships, and in the key city of Aleppo psychological warfare, “constant fire, day and night, without a break”. Aleppo’s hospitals became his particular target.

Putin’s return to Syria in that period, rather like his invasion of Ukraine, always struck me as a first attempt to re-establish the Soviet Empire. As a correspondent in the 1980s when the Soviets and the Americans sparred at war over Lebanon via surrogates — the Israelis sending up the USA’s Falcon F-16 fighters to confront Syria’s Soviet-made Mig-25s — I saw the Soviet Union’s determination to have a foothold in the region.

When I was a Moscow correspondent in the late 1980s, I was fascinated to learn that then leader Mikhail Gorbachev cited the superiority of American firepower over Lebanon and Syria as evidence of how the Soviet Union had fallen behind in the superpower arms race. They had to pull back, to concentrate on putting food on the table, not fighter planes in the air. He lost that argument over time, to the likes of Putin, as we see all too clearly now in Mariupol, and Bucha, and Kharkiv.

Putin has turned the clock back, first in Syria, now in Ukraine. What he is surely banking on, it seems clear, is a replay of Syria. On the military front, a war of cold-blooded attrition that obliterates the towns and cities that have shown they can resist, securing first Eastern Ukraine, and the vital port of Odessa, then moving in on Kyiv. War without end.

All the while, the dramatic number of Ukrainians in flight leaves the defenders ever more isolated. Part of Putin’s learning curve in Syria lay in the millions who fled Aleppo, Homs and Hama — an exodus that helped the Assad regime and his Russian allies besiege the rebels who remained. Note that the war lasted over a decade.

The years passed, and western media lost interest

Equally, Putin will surely be seduced by the memory that the West locked horns over Syria in the halls of the United Nations, the EU Commission and G20 summits, but looked the other way on the only battlefield that mattered. In the process the West broke its promises to act, in time losing interest in the mass murder of those who fought on, as General Dvornikov went to work on liquidating those who defied the Syrian government. An American President, lest we forget, committed himself to action, a so-called “red line”, if and when the Syrians-cum-Russians used chemical weapons. Barack Obama did not follow through when Assad deployed sarin gas.

By then, I was working for the United Nations. I recall my old boss, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in quiet despair as he watched Putin’s Russia pay lip service to his peace plan for Syria, while working behind the scenes to ensure it never happened. The tragic paralysis of the UN Security Council today — with Russia using its veto to prevent condemnation of the Ukraine war, and with China and even India abstaining — is born out of the deep stain left by the UN’s abject failure over Syria.

The years passed in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, and western media (apart from one or two notable exceptions, my old habitat at ITN’s Channel Four News being one) lost interest. Western governments accepted there was no way to save Syria from Assad, and Putin. The silence was deafening — while some stayed defiant to the end, in pursuit of a Syria that didn’t murder its own for their beliefs.

The challenge as we enter another month in Ukraine is stark. Do we allow Putin’s mad gamble on recent history repeating itself to play out ? Do we look at General Dvornikov, and see him for what he is: a Russian nationalist, nay zealot, who believes might is right, whatever the cost? Do we acknowledge our own past failings, in Syria, in the tragedy now playing out on the streets of Ukraine?

As a foreign correspondent, from war zones to halls of power, I took some pride in saying some days, live on air: “I don’t know.” I always added, “but what I can tell you is…” and right now, I cannot avoid adding the thought that the West surely has to step up, in the face of such evil.

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