Russia’s myth-making in Syria was a template for the horrors in Ukraine

The author is a former CIA analyst and creator of ‘Damascus Station’

At first look, the long-rumbling Syrian battle and the front-page warfare in Ukraine have little in frequent. The previous is a multi-sided civil warfare fought within the Center East, whereas the latter is a contest between states on the gates of Europe. However Russia broods over each these seemingly distinct battlefields.

Vladimir Putin’s warfare in Syria started as a trickle of weapons and advisers to the Damascus regime earlier than a full-scale intervention in 2015. Moscow’s air energy in all probability saved Bashar al-Assad. So Syria gives a cautionary story for what occurs when Russia not solely wins the warfare however fashions the lens by which we see the peace: a template for its technique in Ukraine.

The implications of Assad successful the Syrian warfare have been all the time clear. A Kremlin-allied authorities in Damascus; a long-term Russian army presence within the jap Mediterranean; and a story, fed to Russians at house, that Moscow had bested Washington in a crucial battleground of the brand new chilly warfare. This concerned ways which have grow to be chillingly acquainted. In the course of the second Chechen warfare, the Russian army flattened the capital of Grozny. The UN in 2003 referred to as town the “most destroyed . . . on earth”. In Syria, Aleppo shared an identical destiny. Ukrainian cities together with Mariupol, Kherson and Bakhmut now bear comparable scars.

In Syria, Moscow created a foundational delusion, twisting the warfare’s historical past to serve its personal ends and justify its brutal army marketing campaign. It claims the civil warfare was a contest between Assad and violent Salafi jihadism — a sublime lie that attracts selectively on components of fact whereas ignoring the complexity of the battle. On this telling, Assad was a besieged chief of a multi-ethnic, religiously various nation threatened by Islamic radicals backed by the US and its Arab neighbours. The truth that the Syrian regime is accountable for almost all of the deaths, disappearances and financial smash is conveniently reframed by Russian state media as a vital response to terrorism, moderately than an amoral effort to subjugate its opponents.

The historian Timothy Snyder charts how Putin and his advisers constructed a system sustained by battle and a view of the west as an existential menace. Syria and Ukraine are battlegrounds, however the danger from Russian myths travels a lot farther afield.

First, the Kremlin’s telling of the Syrian battle erases the person and focuses on ideology. Right here, there have been no protesters, no civil opposition, solely terrorism. Russia has vilified the Syrian Civil Defence, generally known as the White Helmets, as a “software utilized by the west to hold out provocations”. The hopeful daybreak of the 2011 rebellion — when a whole bunch of 1000’s of Syrians took to the streets to demand freedom — has been vacuumed from historical past. There aren’t any particular person Syrians, solely the Syrian individuals, who, after all, assist Assad and Putin.

An identical narrative devised for Ukraine means that Russians are combating Nazis. In a protracted essay printed months earlier than the invasion, Putin claimed that Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians have been one individuals beneath Moscow’s authority. Thus any Ukrainian who resists Moscow is an enemy, a traitor, a Nazi collaborator.

Second, Russia’s Syria delusion turns precise occasions on their heads, distorting the reality and wrecking crucial considering. An evaluation of Russian air energy in Syria in 2015-16 reveals that Moscow started its Syria marketing campaign by focusing on not Islamic State, because it claimed, however the anti-Assad rebels round Aleppo and Damascus. Russia and its allies have spun comparable lies about using chemical weapons in Syria, claiming that assaults carried out by the regime have been both faked or the work of the opposition.

The destruction of fact continues in Ukraine. A Russian air strike on a theatre in Mariupol, which killed about 600 individuals, was spun by the Kremlin because the work of a Ukrainian army unit with roots in a far-right militia. Moscow equally claimed that the killing of a whole bunch of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha had been faked by Ukrainian saboteurs.

Third, in Russian delusion, cruelty is a badge of honour, an finish in itself. In Syria, the regime’s supporters have been keen on portray the slogan “Assad or we burn the nation” throughout the pockmarked partitions of emptied cities and neighbourhoods. The purpose turned the struggling of others, the nation a sacrifice for Assad. The identical dynamic is at work in Ukraine. In a Levada Middle ballot carried out in December, 59 per cent of Russian residents claimed to really feel no duty for the deaths of Ukrainian civilians. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is carefully aligned with Putin, have framed the warfare in spiritual phrases, claiming that the sacrifice of Russian troopers will cleanse them of their sins.

The Kremlin’s narrative on Syria and Ukraine gives a darkish warning, a imaginative and prescient of the menace posed by russkaya pravda, Russian fact. To us — and to Syrians and Ukrainians — falls the burden of resistance.

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