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Russia showed its playbook in Syria. Here's what it may mean for civilians in Ukraine

As Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine last week, artists in the Syrian city of Binnish painted a mural to show solidarity with Ukraine. It was painted on what's left of a home destroyed by Russian aircraft during Syria's civil war.
Omar Haj Kadour
AFP via Getty Images
As Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine last week, artists in the Syrian city of Binnish painted a mural to show solidarity with Ukraine. It was painted on what's left of a home destroyed by Russian aircraft during Syria's civil war.

The lessons of Moscow's involvement in Syria's civil war stand as a specter of the heavy-handed playbook experts fear could be used on an even larger and more deadly scale in Ukraine.

Within hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, a new mural could be seen on the side of a bombed-out home in the Syrian city of Binnish. It showed a map of Ukraine, painted in the yellow and blue of the nation's flag, under attack by a large brown Russian bear. Piles of rubble littered the ground around the building, remnants of the Russian air campaign in Syria's civil war.

Aziz al-Asmar, one of the artists behind the painting, described it as a message of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. "The Syrian regime and its Russian allies turned our houses into ruins for the past 11 years, causing many people to be displaced from their homes and villages" he told Al-Jazeera. "What is happening now in Ukraine is the continuation of Russia's policy, and it won't stop if the ... international community do not unite and put an end to it."

Russia's military intervention contributed to untold suffering for millions of Syrian civilians beginning in 2015, when the country first entered the fight on behalf of Syria's President Bashar Assad. With the Russian military's might now trained on Ukraine, the lessons of Moscow's involvement in Syria stand as a specter of the heavy-handed playbook experts fear could unfold on an even larger and deadlier scale the longer the conflict in Ukraine drags on.

An estimated 660,000 refugees have already fled Ukraine, and for those who remain, everyday life has turned virtually unrecognizable. More than 130 civilians have already lost their lives, according to the United Nations, though officials stress that the true death toll is likely far higher. In multiple cities, explosions have hit civilian areas, including hospitals, schools and residential buildings, prompting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday to accuse Russia of war crimes.

"Most of their actions in support of the Syrian army was to exact a high civilian death toll in order to break the morale of the people. And eventually they succeeded in basically dismembering the Syrian opposition as a result," said Randa Slim, a senior fellow and director of the conflict resolution program at the Middle East Institute. "I think that's what they would like to do — they're going to go with extreme force, partly to break down the morale of the Ukrainian people and try to prevent any kind of organized resistance forming together against them."

In Syria, Russia was accused of repeated war crimes

Some of Russia's most intense bombing in Syria came in 2016 during the battle for Aleppo, where a monthlong assault by the Russian/Syrian coalition resulted in the deaths of more than 440 civilians, including more than 90 children, according to Human Rights Watch. The campaign amounted to war crimes, the organization said, writing in a December 2016 report that "airstrikes often appeared to be recklessly indiscriminate, deliberately targeted at least one medical facility, and included the use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and incendiary weapons."

"That's really the sort of case study that we're looking at and getting very worried about, is the artillery tactics that they employed there and this mix of shelling residential areas and then sort of demanding capitulation agreements in single neighborhoods," said Mason Clark, lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "It's incredibly damaging and led to untold civilian casualties that they never, frankly, ever really faced any consequences for."

A similarly lethal assault played out in the northwest province of Idlib. Civilian locations such as hospitals, schools and markets were repeatedly targeted over the course of a major offensive launched in 2019, according to human rights groups, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,600 people and the displacement of another 1.4 million.

Investigators for the United Nations would later conclude that Russia was responsible for multiple war crimes during the 11-month campaign in Idlib. In one attack, more than 43 civilians were killed when Russian aircraft launched a series of airstrikes on a market. Civilians and other rescuers soon rushed to the scene, but within minutes they were met by a "double-tap" airstrike on the same area, killing scores more. About a month later, a separate airstrike hit a compound for displaced civilians, killing at least 20 people, including six children.

"In both incidents, the Russian air force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas," according to the U.N.

Civilian areas in Ukraine have already faced heavy bombardment

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied accusations of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria, and on Monday it said its military forces do not threaten the peaceful residents of Ukraine and are not attacking civilian targets.

"The threat comes from Ukrainian nationalists, who are placing weapons in residential buildings in order to use the civilian population as human shields," the Kremlin said.

But growing reports of civilian casualties from Ukrainian officials, the United Nations, humanitarian and independent monitoring groups and international media organizations in Ukraine have all but eroded Moscow's claims.

"They don't hesitate to hit civilian targets. And then the second lesson is they lie about it constantly," said Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. "Of course, Syria wasn't the first time they used this playbook," he reminded. "They used it in Grozny in that campaign in Chechnya. So I would assume it's their standard playbook and there will be times they use it in Ukraine."

On Tuesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had recorded at least 536 civilian casualties since the start of the invasion in Ukraine, including 136 deaths. Thirteen of the dead were children.

"Most of these casualties were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, and airstrikes. These are only the casualties we were able to cross-check, and the real toll is likely to be much higher," said a spokesperson for the commissioner.

Among those killed are four people who died when a Russian ballistic missile carrying cluster munitions struck outside a hospital Thursday in the city of Vuhledar, according to Human Rights Watch. Cluster munitions are considered so indiscriminate in the harm they cause for civilians that in 2008 more than 100 nations signed a global treaty banning their use. Neither Ukraine nor Russia signed on. In a statement after the Vuhledar bombing, Human Rights Watch said it documented the use of the same type of cluster munition in an attack by Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib in 2020.

In a separate attack on Friday, suspected Russian cluster munitions fell on a preschool in the northeastern city of Okhtyrka, according to Amnesty International. Three people died, according to Amnesty, including one child.

By Tuesday, the fighting seemed to be intensifying. In Kharkiv, the nation's second-largest city was experiencing some of the heaviest shelling since the start of the invasion. At least nine civilians were reportedly killed Monday in the bombardment of a residential area of the city as Russian forces appeared to be adopting siege warfare tactics.

"Today showed that this is not only a war, it is the murder of us, the Ukrainian people," said the city's mayor, Igor Terekhov, in a message posted to Facebook. "This is the first time in its many-year history that the city of Kharkiv has been through something like this: shells that hit residential homes, killing and maiming innocent citizens."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Breslow