‘Our fates are united’: Syrians rally behind Ukraine after years of Russian torment

Bombed and menaced by an unchecked Putin since 2015, Syrians hope the tide might be finally turning

When a Russian air raid in north-western Syria killed 34 Turkish troops, Ankara’s revenge quickly followed. But, instead of targeting the forces of Vladimir Putin, whose jets had caused the carnage, Turkey sent armed drones towards the Syrian army, pulverising hundreds of pieces of weaponry and killing scores of troops – all as Russia watched on blithely.

In the years since Putin intervened in Syria in 2015 to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad there had been countless examples of Russian attacks on civilian sites – schools, bakeries and hospitals – all of which had met meek responses from global leaders and drawn scant attention from war crimes prosecutors.

But the spectre of a Nato member being unwilling to confront the Russian president for the deadliest assault on its forces in decades spoke volumes about the power Putin had brazenly consolidated amid Syria’s ruins – a lethal intervention that emboldened the veteran leader in the years before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Putin addresses to his troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 2017.
Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses his troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 2017. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

For Putin, Syria became a convergence of a litany of Russian interests, a place where he could test new weapons, take a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, sponsor proxies, fine-tune disinformation ploys and – more importantly – try his hand at global diplomacy in an arena where the west had lost its way.

Before long, he had convinced many that he alone could reassemble a broken country, and that Russia’s intervention, in a conflict that foiled everyone, was legitimate and maybe even necessary.

That Putin’s air force and artillery regularly bombed civilian targets, killing thousands and laying waste towns and villages, became so passé that it was regularly overlooked.

Impunity became a dominant theme in Idlib province, which remained out of regime control and where Russia assumed it had a free hand to bomb and maim at will. Occasional calls for no-fly zones had no real impetus and the profound suffering of more than three million people became a footnote to a decade of conflict.

All the while, Putin propped up Assad, doing what he could to rehabilitate him on a global scene and building a narrative that he alone was the global leader capable of picking up the pieces.

Porcelain decorated with the images of Putin and Syrian president Bashar Assad in a souvenir shop in Damascus, Syria in 2016.
Porcelain decorated with the images of Putin and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a souvenir shop in Damascus, Syria in 2016. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

While chinks are starting to appear in Assad’s armour of impunity, Russia has never been held to account for the role it played in Syria. To the contrary, Putin has drawn confidence from every one of the past seven years, cementing himself as a regional player and a shrewd global operator, and turned the first major Russian military foray since the collapse of the former Soviet Union into a relative success, all the while scoffing at what he sees as a navel-gazing and splintered west.

Syrian civilians, especially in the north-west, have rallied behind Ukraine, sending messages of solidarity and allying their cause to that of a people invaded by a powerful neighbour that seems to know no bounds.

In Idlib, residents say a playbook created in Syria of rampant disinformation, indiscriminate bombing, cyberwarfare and devastating heavy weaponry is certain to be used again.

But to their surprise, the war of narrative, which had tipped decisively in Russia’s favour in Syria, is being lost in Ukraine, where a previously disengaged world has taken a keen interest.

The numbers of global states lining up to sanction Russia has astounded many Syrians who, while they can’t fathom why they were left behind, are cheering on Ukraine from their faraway tents and shantytowns still under Russian siege.

A man walk through destruction wrought by airstrikes in the town of Ariha, Idlib province in Syria, January 2020.
A man walk through destruction wrought by airstrikes in the town of Ariha, Idlib province in Syria, January 2020. Photograph: Ghaith Alsayed/AP

In Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, hopes are rising that the tide may be finally turning against Russia. If even Germany is supplying weapons to Ukraine, and Turkey has mustered the courage to prevent Russian warships passing through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea, hope is stirring that the Syrian conflict could be viewed with more empathy.

“Their suffering is ours,” said Elham Shaheen, a Syrian living in exile in Turkey. “We know better than anyone else in the world what Ukraine is going through. If they win, we do too. All of my family is watching on. Much of Syria is too.”

Other Syrians spoke of the ease with which Russian propaganda is being shredded in Ukraine, and of hope their own agony would be viewed through a fresh prism.

“We lived under Russian bombs and lies for six years,” said Marwan Issa, a villager from Homs, now in Idlib. “Our fates are now united.”


Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Syrians join Russian ranks in Ukraine as Putin calls in Assad’s debt
Analysis: Safe in his palace, Syrian leader appears to have given Moscow carte blanche to airlift his army

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

18, Mar, 2022 @2:47 PM

Article image
Syrians babies called 'Putin' in honour of Russian president
Many families adopting name following Vladimir Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad during war

Mark Rice-Oxley

21, Apr, 2017 @1:56 PM

Article image
Syrian mission restores pride in Russian military after years of decay
Moscow’s intervention in Syria revealed a Russian military transformed from the war in Georgia but cuts threaten modernisation

Shaun Walker in Moscow

15, Mar, 2016 @4:09 PM

Article image
Russia’s private military contractor Wagner comes out of the shadows in Ukraine war
Mercenary group does not officially exist but is playing a more public role and openly recruiting in Russia

Pjotr Sauer

07, Aug, 2022 @3:41 PM

Article image
Obama's Hanover talks unlikely to yield new line on vexed issues
US president expected to discuss Syria, Isis, the refugee crisis and Libya with French, German, Italian and British leaders

Simon Tisdall

25, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Thousands of Syrians displaced as threat of Idlib attack grows
UN warns Idlib civilians could be facing worst humanitarian disaster this century

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor

10, Sep, 2018 @8:23 PM

Article image
Russia’s ‘warning’ of Ukraine’s biological weapons sounds just like Syria
Analysis: Putin used the same false justification for brutal bombings in Syria, in the glare of western media

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

09, Mar, 2022 @7:28 PM

Article image
Ukraine declares full control of Lyman after Russian forces pull out
Volodymyr Zelenskiy confirmed his troops had liberated the key eastern city, marking an embarrassing set back for Putin

Luke Harding in Kyiv

02, Oct, 2022 @2:45 PM

Article image
Putin endorsed by Iran for invasion of Ukraine but clashes with Turkey at summit
Tehran meeting saw discord over Erdoğan’s plan to intervene in Syria but ‘progress’ on shipping Ukrainian grain

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

19, Jul, 2022 @10:23 PM

Article image
Ukraine: a local crisis with global repercussions

In today's multipolar world, events in Ukraine may well reverberate as far away as Afghanistan and North Korea
EU imposes sanctions on 21 Russians and Ukrainians

Ian Black

17, Mar, 2014 @1:43 PM