Since the beginning of its intervention in Syria in September 2015, Russia has not only sought to keep in place its most faithful Arab ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It has also wanted to regain the regional and global influence that it lost since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin has sought to use the turmoil in the Middle East to erase international norms and advances in international humanitarian law made since the second world war. In fact, creating the humanitarian disaster that has turned almost 6m Syrians into refugees has not been a byproduct of the Russian president’s strategy in Syria. It has been one of his central goals.
I believe that Mr Assad is the most barbarous ruler that the world has seen since Joseph Stalin. When his own people rose up against him, he developed a military strategy designed to inflict the greatest possible harm on his civilian opponents. He deliberately targeted hospitals, schools and kindergartens, trying to kill or maim care givers. He has used poison gas and chemical attacks over the course of a conflict that has left more than half a million dead. Mr Putin has meanwhile provided him with the air power without which Mr Assad couldn’t have carried out his strategy.
In May 2019, Russia bombed four hospitals in 12 hours, as detailed by a New York Times investigation. As recently as February 26, 2020, according to the UN, 10 schools were targeted in a single day including kindergartens. Local health officials claim that, since the Syrian regime and its Russian ally launched the campaign to retake Idlib in April 2019, at least 49 medical facilities have been targeted. Another investigation suggests the number may be as high as 60.
Russia has also targeted at least 14 camps holding internally displaced persons during the conflict for Idlib. In recent weeks, attacks on camps near the Turkish border have multiplied, pushing hundreds of thousands of people in the direction of the Turkish border. This has panicked Ankara, prompting it to encourage the refugees already on its soil to head towards Europe. This, in turn, has triggered a refugee crisis at Turkey’s border with Greece.
Syrian civil society and international human rights groups have repeatedly pointed out this systematic targeting of civilians and basic civilian infrastructure. But to no avail.
As Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, it has used its veto repeatedly — 14 times since the beginning of the war in Syria — to block efforts at accountability. That includes the veto, alongside China, of a resolution supported by 65 countries and the rest of the security council that would have referred war crimes committed in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The only government that has put up military forces to defend the civilians trapped in Idlib by Mr Assad and its Russian ally is Turkey. Air strikes by Russian planes (Moscow has denied their role) killed 34 Turkish soldiers late last month.
But Turkey did not dare attack Russia directly because the Russian air force is stronger than Turkey’s. Russia has nuclear weapons and Turkey does not. Turkey instead chose to retaliate against the Assad forces using military drones. That is how Putin has got away with impunity for murder.
In 2014, I urged Europe to wake up to the threat that Russia was posing to its strategic interests, albeit in a different context and geography. Russia had invaded Ukraine knowing that Europe would seek to avoid any confrontation with Moscow.
Yet what is happening in Idlib now is following the same pattern: Europe is evading a confrontation with Russia over its Syria policy when it should be standing up to it. By focusing on the refugee crisis that Russia has created, Europe is addressing the symptom and not the cause.
A Europe that is set on limiting the inflow of refugees must concede that Turkey has already borne the brunt of housing the millions of Syrians displaced from their country. Turkey already houses 3.5m Syrian refugees in its territory. It cannot absorb the additional million that Mr Assad and Mr Putin are pushing towards its borders.
Europe should not forget how Turkey can also treat its own people — witness the reckless force it has used against the Kurds. But with respect to Syria at least, Turkey deserves Europe’s support.
Europe should therefore seek to bolster Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s negotiating position with Mr Putin in trying to reach a cease fire that would preserve a “safe zone” in Idlib for Syrian refugees. I hope that this would also put Mr Putin’s war crimes at the centre of the European conversation.