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Lessons from Russia's role in Syria war


Russia's attack on Ukraine is going into its fourth week now. It's met far stiffer resistance from Ukrainian fighters than the Russians seem to expect. Now, we've talked quite a bit in recent days about what Ukraine's allies can do to help the country defend itself, but now we need to focus on the other side of the equation. What is Russia likely to do to break the impasse? For clues, many experts are looking to Syria, where Russian forces helped Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad stay in power despite a decade-long uprising against him. Those clues are frightening. A United Nations commission investigating atrocities committed in Syria has repeatedly concluded that Russia's military launched attacks in Syria that targeted civilians and amounted to war crimes.

To learn more about this, we called Mona Yacoubian. She is a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and she's with us now. Mona Yacoubian, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MONA YACOUBIAN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we've been seeing Russia launch airstrikes in Ukraine against civilian targets, like that theater in Mariupol, where displaced people were hiding. Targeting civilians is something Russia also did in Syria. That is mentioned specifically in a number of U.N. reports. The question always hangs in the air - is this intentional or somehow a mistake or collateral damage? So based on your understanding of the facts, were those kinds of attacks deliberate, a part of Russia's strategy in Syria?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I think given how widespread the tactic was used in Syria, which, as you note, for now more than 10 years has seen indiscriminate shelling and bombing of hospitals, medical facilities, schools, residential neighborhoods, areas with no military targets to speak of - that kind of shelling really can't be understood in any other way. And, I would note, there was also, in 2016, the deliberate targeting of a U.N. humanitarian convoy by Russia. The convoy was attempting to bring food and assistance into a besieged part of Aleppo. So I think there's very little question that this was a very deliberate tactic to intimidate and kill civilians and win by brutal force.

MARTIN: So based on what we saw in Syria, is this a - the question now is, is Russia likely to rely on large-scale aerial bombardment? And if so, is that because the ground offensive continues to stall? Or is this just a - not just. I mean, I don't even know how to say this. Is this part and parcel of their military tactics?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I think as Russia becomes more desperate, more frustrated in Ukraine, you can see it pull out all the stops and use a number of tactics, not only the deliberate and indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets, but also tactics that we're already seeing in Ukraine, such as besiegement. This is something that the Russians and the Assad regime used with great purpose in Syria. We saw it specifically in Aleppo and in the Damascus suburbs, where these areas were besieged for as long as four years. During that time, these areas were cut off, and no assistance was allowed into these areas. People were essentially starved into submission. That is another tactic we're already beginning to see, unfortunately, in Ukraine.

MARTIN: And as we've mentioned, Russia has been called out by the United Nations for conducting attacks in Syria that amounted to war crimes. Has Russia suffered any consequences at all from for that from an international law perspective? Or has Syria, for that matter?

YACOUBIAN: Well, there have been massive sanctions placed on Syria, not on Russia for its conduct in Syria, but certainly on this - on the Assad regime. Unfortunately, we have not seen the kind - any accountability for the brutality of the way the war was prosecuted in Syria. On the contrary, the Assad regime and by extension Russia operated with virtual impunity.

MARTIN: And what does that tell us, though? I mean, was there some ambiguity about Russia's role in Syria? Does this say something about the international legal system? I mean, how do you understand that?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I think part of it is the consequence of a U.N. Security Council that was rendered ineffective by virtue of Russia's member as one of the Permanent Five and, therefore, wielding veto powers. So international institutions that are designed to address these key issues of peace and security were rendered virtually ineffective in Syria. And unfortunately, sadly and tragically, the world largely stood by as this horrific war in Syria unfolded.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, is there anything else you would want to say about - sort of taking a step back - what you think the legacy of the Syrian conflict is when it comes to all of these things that we've talked about or the way wars are fought going forward, the way the international community responds? What lessons do you hope people will draw from what happened in that conflict?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I mean, I think there are a few things that come to mind. I mean, one is, of course, just that the international community must come together and think more creatively about how we address these kinds of conflicts. When - I think what we're learning about the nature of conflict in the 21st century is just how complex it is and how quickly it takes on a dynamic of its own. That becomes very, very difficult to roll back.

One other kind of similarity that I'm thinking about with respect to Russia and how it prosecuted the war in Syria and what it might hold for Ukraine is if we look at Russia's end game in Syria, Russia came in at the behest of the Assad regime to retake all of the country. Instead, it has settled for a fractured, unstable and impoverished Syria. Syria is now divided into different areas not under the government's control. They were not able, the Russians, to achieve their maximalist aim, so they settled for this. One hopes that that's not where things are going in Ukraine, where Russia - its ambitions stymied, nonetheless prosecutes a war that leads to the fracturing of Ukraine.

MARTIN: That was Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser to the vice president for North Africa and the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Mona Yacoubian, thanks so much for speaking with us today and sharing these insights.

YACOUBIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.