Syrian mercenaries in Ukraine? Why not?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has bluntly declared himself open to the prospect of Syrian mercenaries participating in what he called the liberation of Ukraine from the Nazis (including a Jewish president) and other genocidal maniacs. Why not?
It was in Syria that Putin’s forces trained for Ukraine, perfecting the practice of bombing hospitals. Syria is where the West, following Washington’s lead, has repeated its lines about fearing WWIII more than anything else, thereby encouraging Putin and his Syrian client to do as they please. defenseless civilians. Syria is where President Bashar al Assad, encouraged by Putin, has engaged in a decade of war crimes and crimes against humanity whose results in death, disease, displacement and destruction – both physical and spiritual – dwarfs what has happened in Ukraine to date. Recruiting armed Assad supporters to help plunder Ukraine is perfectly consistent with what Assad and Putin have already done to Syria.
In truth, however, a few hundred or even several thousand Syrian mercenaries will not measurably affect the military outcome in Ukraine. They would most likely be used in ground assaults to test Ukrainian defences, sparing Russian forces the casualties that Putin politically wishes to avoid. Those who survived these suicidal missions would no doubt be allowed to use the spoils of war in occupied Ukrainian population centers. But the arrival of Syrian mercenaries on the battlefield will not reverse the trend and produce decisive military results.
Their arrival, however, will mark the official and explicit secession of Assad from the international community. Putin, as this author has noted elsewhere, is the embodiment of what collective security systems – beginning with the 19and century Concert of Europe and represented by the United Nations until May 24, 2022 – were designed to prevent. If one can imagine Napoleon Bonaparte returning to lead France for a second time after the 1815 Congress of Vienna or Adolf Hitler guiding the deliberations of the League of Nations, one can understand the impact of Putin residing at the heart of the system. UN in the Security Council. Assad is only his apprentice. But by materially supporting Putin’s threat to peace and joining Putin’s renunciation of the collective security system established in San Francisco in 1945, Assad severed Syria from the family of nations as Putin severed Russia.
In retrospect, Assad has long been an accomplice – conscious or not – of Putin’s plan to decisively smash the post-war collective security system. The sheer volume of his atrocities derided “Never Again” and emptied “Responsibility to Protect” of all meaning. Although chemical weapons account for less than 1% of Syrians murdered by Assad’s forces over the past 11 years, it is instructive that the Assad regime and Russia have denied that they were ever used. Reports that Putin might use chemicals on Ukrainians should be taken very seriously. He and Assad fully appreciate the terror associated with the inability of unprotected people to breathe.
Indeed, the state terror that the Russians inflict on their Slavic brethren has imprinted on the minds of hundreds of millions of people around the world the horror of war deliberately waged against defenseless civilians. The suffering of Ukrainians has imprinted on humanity – especially perhaps in the West – an impression that the slaughter of Syrians never has.
It is interesting to watch and listen to media commentators as they articulate, often very eloquently and with genuine shock, their discovery in Ukraine of what happens to innocent human beings when a state turns its enormous firepower on children and on those who try to protect them. It will be no consolation for Ukrainians to know that the unnecessary shedding of their blood educates the world.
For Syrians, left unprotected and largely unnoticed despite hundreds of thousands dead, 6 million refugees, 6 million internally displaced people, countless injuries, untold trauma, weaponized disease, torture , rape and starvation, the attention being undoubtedly lavished on Ukrainians produces mixed reactions. Some may wonder, “Are we blond enough to deserve the world’s attention?” Has our Muslim faith disqualified us from protection? Did the depredations of another violently incompetent Arab leader just hit the world as usual? Yet others, while mourning the deaths of Ukrainian children as they mourned their own, will rejoice at the opening of their eyes to the horrific consequences of state terror.
The shamefully gratuitous abandonment of Syria by a drifting, leaderless West cannot be undone, though there will no doubt be new opportunities to protect defenseless Syrian civilians and demand that diplomatic normalization with a murderous mass – someone now keen to send armed mercenaries to Ukraine – be overthrown. Nothing can undo the suffering caused by the West’s failure to protect those deliberately targeted with artillery barrages, barrel bombs and chemical munitions. Yet there are lessons to be learned applicable to both Ukraine and Syria.
After Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015, the unofficial US excuse for leaving Syrian civilians unprotected changed from a variation of “Oh, if we lift a finger to suppress the army from the air of Assad, it will lead to an invasion and occupation just like Iraq”. to “Oh, if we lift a finger to protect Syrians from mass murder, it could, due to the presence of Russian forces, lead to World War III”. By retaliating twice in the wake of chemical attacks by the Assad regime, the Trump administration has refuted the Third World War thesis. But he made a strong comeback in the Ukrainian crisis.
It is not necessary to advocate Western military intervention in Ukraine or to play fast and loose with a possible nuclear war to see how gratuitous and increasingly promiscuous talk of a possible Third World War by the American leaders can produce quite unintended but totally destabilizing consequences. There’s nothing wrong with thinking and final that US boots on the ground in Ukraine or US planes in the skies over Ukraine could significantly escalate matters between Washington and Moscow, and perhaps not even produce the desired results in Ukraine. Corn saying this – publicly and repeatedly – can, given the nature of Hitler’s successor as a threat to world peace, be dangerous.
Imagine the impact of those words on Putin’s brain. “Americans feared a nuclear war could break out following an armed incident in Syria, and now they are expressing the same fear about Ukraine. If this fear is at the forefront of their minds, would they be willing to confront me anywhere? If they find the Russian-American confrontation in Syria and Ukraine inadmissible, would they also find it in Poland, Romania and the Baltic States? What, after all, is the difference? Article 5 of NATO? Is it worth a nuclear war in the eyes of Washington? I have my hands full with Ukraine right now – I can even use Syrian mercenaries. But, when the time is right for me, will the Americans fight to defend their eastward expansion from NATO? Not if they think it will lead to nuclear war!
Putin doesn’t need to be emotionally unstable to come to such a conclusion. But it would be extraordinarily dangerous for him to do so. The view here is that the United States and its NATO allies would indeed fight to defend the territorial integrity of all NATO members; they would defeat the Russian invaders and thus risk a nuclear war. If Putin is to be deterred from undertaking armed adventures beyond Ukraine, he must be certain that he will meet the full force of US-led NATO conventional military capabilities. For American leaders, repeatedly emphasizing an overriding fear of World War III risks sending the opposite message to Putin: that ultimately the United States will avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia anywhere. and at all costs.
Given these stakes, sending Syrian mercenaries to Russia for use in ravaging Ukraine is something relatively unimportant. But it is a reminder of how the West’s weakness in Syria in the face of painstakingly extensive war crimes encouraged Putin to seize Crimea. It’s a reminder of how Putin dealt with a weak response to Crimea and a conflict-avoidance approach at all costs by Washington and the West in Syria as he weighed invading Ukraine’s balance. . He needs no further encouragement in this direction. He will do what he wants with Assad supporters looking for pay and loot. But – as we arm the Ukrainians and strengthen NATO – let’s not deceive him about our willingness to fight him if necessary and defeat him thoroughly. Anything less is likely to inadvertently lead to precisely the outcome that all of humanity should wish to avoid.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a professor at Bard College and author of the upcoming book Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attent to Reach a Syria-Israel Peace (United States Institute of Peace).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.