By Yassin al-Haj Saleh
In the week since Russia’s invasion began, Syrians opposed to President Bashar al-Assad might come second only to Ukrainians themselves in following every horror of the war that Vladimir Putin’s regime is waging in Ukraine. The reason behind this curious situation, of course, should be quite apparent. Russia has been occupying part of Syria since late September 2015, brutally supporting Assad’s regime, whose highest priority is to stay in power forever, even if he has to submit the country to expansionist outside forces like Iran and Russia itself.
For six and a half years, Russia has held a major military base in northwestern Syria, called Hmeimim, to which Assad is usually summoned when Putin or his defense minister visit their troops there. In 2019, Russia secured a 49-year lease for the port of Tartous, where it can now base warships in the Mediterranean. Russia’s defense minister has boasted of successfully testing more than 320 different weapons from its military arsenal in Syria. Putin himself praised the combat experience that more than 85 percent of the Russian army’s commanders gained in Syria.
Syria was a testing ground for Russia’s military. It used phosphorus munitions, thermobaric bombs and cluster bombs—banned by international treaty—against civilian facilities, targeting hospitals, schools, and markets. It labeled all those who opposed the Assad regime as terrorists (just like Assad did too). This simply means that their lives are ungrievable; that killing them is not a crime. It is even a good thing that should be rewarded, at least with praise. Indeed, Putin was praised by Islamophobic right-wing organizations in the West, and supporters of authoritarianism everywhere, for his imperialist war in Syria, responsible so far for killing some 23,000 civilians.
The war on terror provided Putin with a golden chance to achieve his imperialist ambitions to resurrect the Russian empire, starting in Syria. Now, encouraged by a costless mandate over Syria, Putin wants to annex Ukraine.
– YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH
Yet there have hardly been enough voices in the West condemning Putin’s war in Syria. Why? Because of the long and criminal “war on terror,” which has been the basis of a broad international coalition against terrorists—that is, nihilist Sunni Islamic groups—where the United States and the European Union are in a de facto alliance with Russia, as well as the likes of Assad, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed, and of course the apartheid state of Israel. This has not just been a betrayal of Syrians who have been struggling for democracy for two generations, but a betrayal of democracy everywhere in the world.
The war on terror provided Putin with a golden chance to achieve his imperialist ambitions to resurrect the Russian empire, starting in Syria. Putin notoriously regards the fall of the Soviet Union as a “genuine tragedy” and the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”—not out of any communist sentiments, but because the Soviet Union was to a great degree a Russian empire. And now, encouraged by a costless mandate over Syria, Putin wants to annex Ukraine, which according to him never had “traditions of real statehood.”
This aggression is based on three contradictory pretexts. First, to “de-nazify” Ukraine, something that makes this war a continuation of the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler—rather than of Putin’s own expansionist wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria. Second, to “demilitarize” Ukraine, or destroy its armed forces and prevent it from ever joining NATO. And third, because Ukraine is not a “real nation,” as Putin claims, but a part of Russia.
One is reminded of the “kettle story” by Freud. A man borrowed a kettle from his neighbor and returned it damaged. To acquit himself, he provided three arguments: The kettle wasn’t damaged when he returned it; it was already damaged when he borrowed it; he had never borrowed the kettle at all. This is the logic of uncontrollable desire for power from a dictator who cannot or does not want to restrain himself as he wages his fifth war so far this century. But Putin’s three arguments have already collapsed. While it is true that there are far-right, ultra-nationalist groups in Ukraine, they are a minority with limited political power, and by no means are they the ones actually targeted by Russia’s invasion. If anything, Putin’s war gives full justification to Ukraine to defend itself however it can from its aggressive, bullying neighbor. Ukraine is proving her national reality through resistance against the Russian invaders.
A Russian defeat would be a victory not just for Ukraine, but the world. A defeat of Putin might also well end his political life, which is the best news possible for the Russian democrats who are courageously protesting the aggression in their nation’s name. This can be good news for Syrians too, because it would also weaken Assad’s barbaric and traitorous regime, along with the growing authoritarian tendencies in the whole Middle East and indeed the world. And while a defeat of our common enemy, Putin, will not necessarily be a victory for us Syrians, a victory for Putinism will be an even bigger defeat for us, as it will diminish our already meager opportunities to retrieve our own country.
But even if Ukraine can repel Russia, the possible victors will be the ones who were complicit in submitting Syria, our country, to that very enemy. I mean the Western powers, in particular the United States—the author of the war on terror. Putinist Russia is perceived as an aggressive invader on one front, and as the brute that can do the nasty job of the West on another front. But this is ethically contemptible, and politically counterproductive, as Ukraine is proving.
We need a politics and justice against terror, not a war against terror. The word for that politics and this justice is democracy. Sacrificing democracy on the altar of the war on terror and the priority of security is unprincipled and self-defeating, not only in Syria and the Middle East, but also in the West itself.
Imperialism and democracy are incompatible. This is true for Russia, and everywhere else. The same applies in the West. Imperialism that had its boomerang effect in Europe before, in the form of Nazism, as Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, is already having its analogous effect in our time in the form of right-wing populism, which was been progressively normalized and moved quickly from the extreme right to the acceptable mainstream, in direct relation to the war on terror and the so-called migrant and refugee crisis.
As refugees, uprooted from our home and scattered in 127 countries, we, Syrians, are now our own international community. As such, we invite ourselves to intervene in every struggle on the planet.
Ukraine is a Syrian cause. So is the world.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer and political dissident, is a DAWN fellow.