The world should have stopped Putin in Syria. Now Ukraine is paying the price of international silence
As I write this, it is unknown if Ukraine will be conquered by war or diplomacy. Though this might sound overly cynical to some, such cynicism is borne of the realities of how the world has reacted to Russian aggression in recent times. Since 2014, when Russia first invaded and annexed Crimea, Ukrainian self-determination and sovereignty has existed in a state of grim precariousness.
Russia has ensured that Ukrainian self-determination and sovereignty is severely curtailed and its functionality as a democratic state mired by its waging of a protracted war in Donbas – it now seeks to completely reshape Ukraine along contours decided by Putin.
It might be a cliché in foreign affairs to conjure the 'Munich Betrayal' of 1938 when it comes to matters of war and peace, but sometimes the cliché holds true. When British prime minister Neville Chamberlain averted Hitler's planned military invasion of Czechoslovakia by negotiating terms that saw the Nazis get exactly what they wanted without firing a single bullet, Chamberlain and much of Europe, excluding the horrified Czechoslovaks, celebrated it as a moment of 'peace'. Within one year Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and WWII erupted.
"[B]ut with the Biden administration even more toothless and infused with callous Realpolitik than the British in the 1930s, Putin will almost certainly get what he wants in Ukraine by negotiation or war"
Putin's Russia is not Nazi Germany and world war is not at stake over the crisis in Ukraine, but with the Biden administration even more toothless and infused with callous Realpolitik than the British in the 1930s, Putin will almost certainly get what he wants in Ukraine by negotiation or war.
It is not as if there have not been immediate catastrophic precedents in the very modern context of Russia's global aggression. However, to scan most of the Western media, you will find scant mention of the fact of the crimes against humanity currently carried out by Russia in Syria.
It is hardly likely that commentators do not know about Russia's brutally murderous intervention in Syria, one that has seen the flattening of entire Syrian cityscapes and the deliberate targeting of civilians in their homes, shops, hospitals and schools. The terror rained upon Syrians by the Russian air force has led to the cleansing of millions of civilians, fomenting, some would say by design, a 'refugee crisis' that has led to the rise or bolstering of pro-Putin forces around the continent. This is not the raking up of old bones, but rather this brutality is occurring until this day, where further mass-murderous escalations initiated by Assad and Russia could occur at any time.
It is not just that Western commentators seem unwilling to talk about Syria. It is that they cannot make the essential link between Russia's intervention against a Syrian revolution that was centred around self-determination and sovereignty with Russian aggression against Ukraine that seeks to extinguish or severely curtail Ukrainian self-determination and sovereignty. Is not it obvious that within the context of the rise of Putin's Russia as an aggressive, militaristic counterhegemonic illiberal force in the post-War on Terror era that its intervention in Syria is a major event?
One comes to understand that there is a hierarchy of care when it comes to geopolitics and the media coverage of geopolitical events. The world very briefly cared about Syria as a place where a revolution centred on the universal struggle for liberty, self-determination and recognition against anti-human tyranny had occurred. It was not only that the world did not simply lose interest in Syria, but that perceptions dramatically changed.
Suddenly Syria became no more than a source of tragedy or pestilent, depending on your political persuasion, refugees, or as a source of the visceral horrors of ISIS. Moreover, with the rise of ISIS, suddenly the logic of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) became predominant over the previous revolutionary idealism of the Arab spring.
The GWOT logic, which was birthed by the US after their response to 9/11 turned into a series of catastrophes, is the logic that any real or imagined fight against non-state terrorism supersedes any other conflict or struggle. This logic is also conjured by state forces to brand national liberation movements as terrorists all the better to justify all manner of atrocities and state terrorism against them.
Russia successfully branded all rebels as ISIS/al-Qaeda and thus the US gradually turned a blind eye to Russian-Baathist atrocities, even sharing the same airspace with them as Syria became not the site of a genocidal counterrevolutionary war but another front in the GWOT. Suddenly the striking image of the Arab Spring was not the triumph of Tahrir Square or the Assad regime's counterrevolutionary brutality against revolutionary Syrians, but the visceral spectre of the black-clad Islamic head-choppers of ISIS.
When the US in Syria, via the Kerry-Lavrov agreement of 2013 following the Ghouta sarin gas massacre, essentially appeased Russia, it not only led to more chemical weapons atrocities but in a short time the full-blooded Russian intervention in Syria and the acquiescence by the alleged proponents of democracy and liberty in the West to Russian hegemony over the country.
"One cannot lament the Russian aggression against Ukraine while whitewashing its aggression in Syria – they are bound by Russia's will to enforce tyranny against liberty"
In terms of the real world, to understand Russia's strategy as a hegemon of global illiberalism that is hostile to liberal democracy and the seeds of it growing anywhere in its zone of influence, we must understand the way this aggression is knitted together. One cannot lament the Russian aggression against Ukraine while whitewashing its aggression in Syria – they are bound by Russia's will to enforce tyranny against liberty.
If the international community caves to Russian demands in Ukraine, it is not just a major blow for the liberty of Ukrainians and Syrians, but for those who aspire to freedom globally. Russia is not the only shark circling the increasingly doomed vessel of liberal democracy in the world.
This could be the nature of the alleged negotiations between the realist Biden and Putin over Ukraine. Anything that averts war might be celebrated as peace, as Chamberlain did in 1938 and John Kerry did in 2013 but if Syria, and history, teaches us anything, it’s that such peace is often shorthand for the triumph of the powerful over the weak and an incentive for the aggressor to be more aggressive.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.