Syrians seek to help Ukrainians, citing shared suffering under Russian military


NICOSIA, Cyprus (AFP) – Syrians are mobilizing to support Ukrainians, sharing hard-won knowledge from years of warfare involving Russian forces, such as surviving bombings, helping refugees and responding to attacks chemicals.

As Ukrainians and Syrians seek accountability for the devastation inflicted by Russian forces in their country, they feel a unique bond is being created between them.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on power seemed to be hanging by a thread after the outbreak of civil war in 2011, until Russian forces intervened four years later, turning the conflict in favor of the diet.

“Based on our experiences in Syria, we might be among those most able to understand the pain of the Ukrainian people,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of Syria’s civil defense force, known as the Helmets. whites.

“Syrians have lived through the bombings, killings and displacements caused by Russian forces.

“Time and place have changed, but the victim is the same – civilians – and the killer is the same – the Russian regime,” he told AFP.

A photo taken on March 17, 2018 shows portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a jewelry store in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP Photo/Georges Ourfalian)

During the fighting in Syria, which claimed more than 500,000 lives, the White Helmets worked as first responders, rescuing thousands from the rubble of homes bombed by Russian and regime forces in rebel-held areas in Syria. Syria.

The fate of the beleaguered port of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, the scene of some of Moscow’s fiercest assaults, has drawn comparisons with eastern neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo. -western Syria.

The former rebel stronghold was flattened by airstrikes in 2016, during a months-long siege.

“Look at the city of Mariupol. This is exactly what we saw in the city of Aleppo in Syria,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told an international forum last month.

He wanted to convey the message that “‘Russia has always been a bad actor, Aleppo is proof of that and now it’s our turn to suffer'”, Emile Hokayem, an analyst at AFP, told AFP. International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London.

A woman pulls her bags past houses damaged during the fighting in Mariupol, in the territory now under the control of the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, east of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

“We warned you”

This shared suffering has given rise to a series of initiatives.

A coalition of groups launched the Ukraine Syria Network (SUN) which helped Syrian doctors travel to Ukraine, said coordinator Olga Lautman, a Ukrainian living in Washington.

“We will coordinate [with] Syrian experts in documenting war crimes and chemical attacks,” Lautman told AFP.

This came from “the willingness of Syrians to use their expertise to help”, she said, describing the “bond” that is forging between the two peoples.

In northwestern Idlib, one of the last rebel areas in Syria, doctors from the Academy of Health Sciences are training Ukrainian doctors and nurses online, its president Abdullah Abdulaziz Alhaji said.

Ukrainians mainly ask to know more about the chemical attacks, he said. “They want to benefit from our experience.

A man walks past destruction by airstrikes on the town of Ariha, in Syria’s Idlib province, January 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)

Although no use of chemical weapons has been confirmed in Ukraine, chlorine or sulfur gas attacks have been recorded during the Syrian conflict, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The White Helmets rescuers are also filming instructional videos for Ukrainians on how to treat the injured.

On the Ukrainian-Romanian border, the Syrian Omar Alshakal, founder of the association Refugee4Refugees, comes to the aid of Ukrainians fleeing the war.

And Ukrainian and Syrian activists will launch a “Freedom and Justice Convoy” from Paris to the Ukrainian-Polish border on Wednesday to show the “solidarity of the Syrian people”.

“Syrians are keen to embrace the cause of Ukraine because it helps to rekindle international attention on their own tragedy and to say to Westerners: ‘We warned you but you preferred to look the other way,'” Hokayem said. .

In this photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its content and other AP reports, Syrian White Helmets civil defense workers carry a casualty from destroyed homes affected by Russian airstrikes, in the village of Maaret Musreen, in Idlib province, Syria, March 5, 2020. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)


Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute noted that Syrian activists have “sought to ride this wave of anti-Russian sentiment, support the Syrian cause, but also foster meaningful new geopolitical relationships in Ukraine.”

Syrian opposition leaders had met with Ukrainian leaders on the sidelines of international gatherings, and “their shared experiences were a clear cause for unity”, he told AFP.

The more important question for both is whether Moscow – and in Syria the Kremlin-backed President Assad – will ever be held accountable.

“If Putin was held accountable for his crimes in Ukraine, that means he will also be held accountable for his crimes in Syria. But if Putin gets away with it, then the next crime will only be a matter of time,” said Saleh of the White Helmets.

Last month, Agnès Callamard of Amnesty International noted that the situation in Ukraine “is a repeat of what we have seen in Syria”.

Many pointed to the similarities in Russian tactics in Syria and Ukraine – from targeting infrastructure to establishing so-called safe corridors and truces aimed at emptying cities.

A Russian military hat lies on the sidewalk after Ukrainian forces overran a Russian position outside kyiv, Ukraine, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Moscow has shown a “lack of moral principles … whether in its actions in Syria or Ukraine”, said Ivan Cherevychny, 71, a resident of the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia.

He also castigated “the irresponsible attitude of the United Nations and world leaders” in the face of the two crises.

Others have alleged that several commanders now playing leading roles in the Russian invasion had been involved in the Syrian war, citing in particular Alexander Lapin and Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russian forces in Syria in 2016.

“Russia used Syria as a training ground to test the effectiveness of strikes against residential, social and economic infrastructure,” said a prominent Ukrainian lawyer-turned-fighter from Kyiv, who only wanted to be identified as Oleg.

The destruction of infrastructure makes the country “unfit for life”, he added.

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