CJ Werleman reports on continuing attempts by Vladimir Putin to destabilise Europe by killing and displacing Syrian civilians in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
In 1983, US President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”. He was right and, if he was still alive today, he’d be right in framing Vladimir Putin’s Russia in such biblical terms – notwithstanding that Reagan was no stranger to “evil” himself, having given life to violent right-wing militias up and down the South American continent in the name of “spreading democracy”.
I’ve spent the past nearly two decades documenting and reporting crimes carried out by the US under the guise of its ‘War on Terror’ and as grotesque, diabolical and cynical the execution of US foreign policy might be, it pales in comparison to the dastardly means and methods deployed by Putin to advance Russia’s geopolitical interests.
The scale and scope of Russia’s five-year-long military campaign in Syria not only rises to the level of mass murder, but also a slow-motion Rwandan-level genocide, as it plays a lead hand in the bombardment of civilians from the air and as sectarian militias from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan ethnically cleanse predominantly Sunni cities and towns on the ground.
The world is again witnessing the sinful fruits of Russia’s labour, with nearly one million men, women and children fleeing for their lives in what constitutes the single largest exodus of the entire nine-year-long war, with a majority of the displaced being women and children. They are on the move, yet again – most having been previously displaced from other Syrian cities over the years – as a result of Russian warplanes carrying out hundreds of airstrikes on Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold, since the end of January.
“Every single day there is bombing,” a Syrian English teacher told the BBC. “If a day passes without us hearing any missiles, any aircraft, any warplanes, we are afraid that they are preparing for something bigger than this. People feel fear, angry, hopeless, helpless. It’s not only the bombing. It’s the cold… the high prices, the living expenses. We live day by day… We don’t think about tomorrow.”
The misery, suffering, and terror faced by three million stranded Syrians in Idlib is matched only by the below freezing temperatures. These people are being corralled into an ever-smaller area, trapped between a closed Turkish border and advancing Government forces, several of whom recently filmed themselves desecrating Syrian graves as a means of striking further terror into the hearts of their cornered prey.
Meanwhile, Russian fires missiles strike all around them. There’s nothing or nobody Putin’s warplanes won’t hit, including bakeries, schools, mosques, refugee tents, warehouses full of aid and hospitals. Moreover, these strikes are not by error or happenstance, but rather as a cornerstone of Russia’s military strategy. It does not constrain its violence on moral grounds or self-imposed rules of engagement. It kills whomever, wherever and however.
Drawing upon video evidence, flight logs, witness reports and thousands of previously unheard Russian Air Force communications, a recent New York Times investigation revealed how Russian pilots deliberately bombed four hospitals in a 12-hour period last May.
Since 2011, there have been nearly 600 attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Russia on hospitals and medical facilities, which have resulted in the deaths of at least 916 medical workers, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Russia targets hospitals knowing that life is unsustainable on the ground for those who lack access to medical care. It is a deliberate strategy to displace an undesirable population.
“Every time I went to the hospital, I would say goodbye to my family as if I would never see them again,” writes Dr Tarraf, a surgeon at Maaret al-Numan hospital. “There was always the thought that I would go to the hospital and never come back. It was mentally exhausting, because we had to work under constant bombing. Whenever I heard jets in the sky, I would think the hospital would be the next target. That put those of us in the medical field under enormous psychological pressure.”
Much can be said about the US and its foreign wars, but I can recall only one incidence since 2001 in which the US military has struck a hospital or medical clinic – when in 2015 US aircraft bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people. The US military apologised for the attack, saying it came about as a result of a “series of blunders”, mistaking it for a Taliban-held position.
US President Donald Trump’s loosening of Obama era rules of engagement has resulted in higher civilian casualty counts in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not forgetting that the US-led coalition was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 civilians in ISIS-held Raqqa alone. That said, it should also be noted that ISIS deliberately held captured civilians and prisoners at sites considered legitimate military targets (ammunition dumps, critical military infrastructure etc.).
Russia, on the other hand, goes to sinister lengths to murder civilians. In 2018, the UN, working with a dozen humanitarian organisations, put in place “deconfliction” mechanisms to reduce civilian casualties. A component of this included convincing medical facilities to agree to providing their coordinates to all warring parties, including the al-Assad regime and Russia, to help prevent accidental bombardment caused by “military blunders”.
“Barely a year its implementation, this arrangement backfired spectacularly,” observes Susannah Sirkin, director of policy and a senior advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. “Those who dared share their coordinates with the UN have been bombed” – with a number having been bombed by Russian warplanes multiple times.
Furthermore, Russia is cynically using the lives of three million Syrian refugees in Idlib as leverage against Turkey’s military actions against the al-Assad regime. Should Turkey strike the regime hard, Russia has promised to bomb civilians trapped on the border even harder which, in turn, will predictably send millions crossing Turkey’s border and ultimately launching another European refugee crisis.
The prospect of millions more Syrians seeking refuge in European cities will further push European politics further to the right, helping to undermine the European Union and NATO – all of which serves and advances Russia’s geopolitical objectives.