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EU not repeating the mistakes of Syria response in Ukraine

This week the Russian embassy in Ireland retweeted a tweet from the Russian embassy in the UK. It alleged that 80 tons of ammonia had been delivered to Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ in preparation for a chemical attack. This is an almost identical disinformation tactic utilised by Russian propagandists in Syria. It may be a prelude to a chemical attack by Russia.

The way Russia has been conducting its war in Syria signposts what we can expect in Ukraine. However, the EU response has been of a completely different order. Could it be that Ukraine is paying the price for appeasement in Syria?

This week marks the third week of war in Ukraine but it also marks 11 years since the outbreak of war in Syria war which has caused unimaginable suffering to Syrians and left the north-west of the country facing the ‘biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century’.

Almost 6 years have passed since Russia first intervened militarily in the Syrian war. Since then, President Putin has been propping up the authoritarian and brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. With Putin’s help, Assad has been able to commit countless war crimes, spread mass disinformation campaigns and enjoy impunity leaving Syria caught in a devastating humanitarian crisis.

According to the UN Refugee Agency’s 2022 Humanitarian Needs Overview, 14.6 million people in Syria are now in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 9% since 2021[2], Recently, the UN Syria Commission warned of escalating violence across the country combined with a plummeting economy and one of the worst droughts that Syrians have faced in decades. 90% of the Syrian population is living in poverty.

Now, millions of Syrians face starvation as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Syria imports the majority of its grain from Ukraine and Russia. In 2021, Ukraine was the second-largest supplier of wheat to the UN’s World Food Programme, with much of the aid going to Syria.

Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war are very different in nature, some parallels can be drawn.

Firstly, Russia has avoided accountability despite international efforts to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes in Syria for future prosecutions. Open source intelligence (OSINT) has uncovered multiple examples of Russian jets deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure including bakeries, markets and hospitals.

In March 2020, a report published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry accused Russia for the first time of direct involvement in war crimes in Syria. The report contained evidence which showed that Russian aircrafts were directly involved in these crimes.

Secondly, both conflicts are propelled by hybrid warfare in the form of disinformation campaigns. Russia has denied targeting civilian infrastructure in Syria, instead claiming that their air campaigns were in support of Assad’s war efforts against terrorist groups - a classic example of the disinformation designed to manipulate the public.

Denials about targeting a maternity hospital in Mariupol last week come from the Syria playbook.

Both of these issues raise important questions related to how differently the EU and its partners have responded to Putin’s actions in both wars. The quick, decisive and united response taken by the EU and its partners in response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine have demonstrated the crucial mistakes made in relation to Syria.

In the case of Ukraine, all available evidence now indicates that Russia has committed war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. Russia’s intense bombardments and strikes target civilian areas and medical centres, including a psychiatric hospital in eastern Ukraine and a maternity children’s hospital in Mariupol.

On 28 February, four days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor A.A. Khan announced that an investigation into the situation in Ukraine would be opened as soon as possible. While this move is commendable and very much necessary, it begs the question, why a similar decision was not taken in the case of Syria.

Despite the evidence, the ICC has so far failed to open any investigation into the situation in Syria.

In an attempt to shut down Putin’s ‘manipulation operation’ of disinformation, which risked spreading from Russia into EU member states, the Council of the EU introduced unprecedented sanctions on Russian media outlets on 2 March 2022. In what would have previously been unimaginable, the EU suspended all broadcasting activities of state-owned outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik in the EU or directed at EU audiences.

Again, while this move was the right one to make, the EU has failed to take similar steps to mitigate Putin’s actions in Syria. According to a probe carried out by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), Assad’s disinformation campaign is closely linked to Russian authorities. Findings demonstrate how Assad’s regime coordinate the disinformation network with, and take instruction from, representatives of the Russian state in Syria – again, showing the critical role played by Putin.

While the steps taken by the EU in response to the influx of arrivals from Ukraine in recent days are welcome, the question must be asked why a similar move hasn’t been made in the past. The EU must use this opportunity to reform its migration and asylum policy to recognise the fact that refugees should not be discriminated against.

It will be impossible to fix the mistakes made in response to the Syrian civil war, but the invasion of Ukraine must serve as a wake-up call for Europe.

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