DW spoke to Hanna Notte, an expert at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non‑Proliferation, about “parallels she has observed in conflicts in Syria and now in Ukraine, and how that may help predict what happens next in Ukraine.”
“There are some striking parallels between Russian military tactics in Syria and now in Ukraine,” says Notte in an interview conducted by Mikhail Bushuev, adding that further examination of them is useful.
When asked about the parallels between the “military campaign that Russia conducted in Syria and what it is doing in Ukraine,” Notte said there are five parallels.
The first, according to Notte, is starting with the idea of Russia engaging in sequential warfare, or war in phases.”
The second is the tactic of encircling cities, conducting sieges and bombardments, but then also establishing “humanitarian corridors.”
The third parallel is “the whole issue of foreign fighters, which is complex and multilayered because Russia both accuses the other side of using foreign fighters, then uses them itself.”
“And the fourth and fifth parallels bring us back to the issue of disinformation regarding the enemy’s use of human shields,” Notte goes on to say.
“Russia has often accused terrorists in Syria of using civilians as human shields. Now it’s claiming the same thing about the Azov battalion in Mariupol. It also uses disinformation about the other side staging so-called “false flag” chemical attacks.”
Notte adds that it is always “important to keep in mind the differences between Russia’s campaigns in Syria versus Ukraine, which are significant in terms of objectives and the military scale of the campaign.”
One example is the so-called “human corridors.” The Syria precedent “would again suggest that these kinds of corridors have to be taken with a lot of caution for various reasons.”
“A good example is the siege of Aleppo, a major city in Syria, in 2016. It was under siege for, I believe, over six months. And there Russia also eventually opened humanitarian corridors but these were often distrusted by civilians.”
“The problem is that, for instance, if you look at the humanitarian corridors in the suburbs of Damascus in 2018, people who decided not to leave because they were scared were subsequently labeled legitimate targets by the Russian military.”
“The narrative was that people could leave and those who stayed were “terrorists”. So this is of potential concern regarding what we might see in Ukraine going forward.”
“And of course, if we just look at the issue of Mariupol and the attempt to establish humanitarian corridors there, it’s proving very difficult.”
“Now in Mariupol you have the issue that apparently civilians were forced to evacuate to Russia, that evacuation buses were carrying hundreds of civilians from Mariupol to Russia, where some civilians were even apparently forced to give alternative evidence of what really happened in Mariupol.”
Regarding the use of chemical weapons, “a red line over chemical weapons use in an armed conflict has been greatly weakened due to [what happened in] Syria,” says Notte.
“Even after Syria declared that it had destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile, we saw repeated use of chemical weapons in that conflict. And Russia essentially has been shielding the Syrian government against attribution and accountability at the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”
Notte cites the massacre of Bucha to say that this shows us that “Russia cares relatively little about being blamed by the international community for such atrocities.”
“Even if Russia were not to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, this constant false flag propaganda about the other side staging a chemical weapons attack, is nonetheless useful for the Russian government,” Notte concludes.