The weeks leading up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine were rife with speculations about the possibility of an invasion.
While US President Joe Biden said he had reliable information confirming the imminence of war, the Kremlin denied it, proclaiming the suggestion a form of political blackmail. Analysts worldwide put forward multiple possible scenarios.
Amid this frenzy of conjectures, a colleague asked me, “Do you think Putin would do it?” I instinctively replied: “Why not?”
I had no information beyond what I was reading in the media. I had no access to intelligence reports or pundit analyses. Yet I had an innate certainty it would happen - because I am a Syrian refugee who was forced to flee to Europe fewer than two months after Russian forces entered Syria on 30 September 2015. I have not lost memory of the harrowing events. I knew Putin would invade Ukraine.
Putin's forces invaded Georgia in 2008, and to this day his forces control South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. His forces entered my country in 2015 where he became a God of War, and since 2016 Putin has been dispatching his favourite mercenaries, Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Fighters, to Libya, Mali, Central Africa, and other countries. In 2018, Russia used nerve gas on British soil in violation of its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. At the start of 2022, Putin’s forces entered Kazakhstan to suppress the popular uprising and return its ousted president to the capital, Astana, after he fled to Moscow. All the while Russia had been lending support to extreme right-wing parties and groups across Europe.
These crimes had passed without accountability from the international community, so why shouldn't Ukraine have been next?
A few days after the start of the war on Ukraine, we saw horrific scenes of systematic bombing of infrastructure, the siege of cities, and the spreading of terror among civilians forced to flee their homes. We witnessed the scorched-earth policy, the targeting of hospitals and schools, the body parts of civilians strewn across the streets, public buses carrying the displaced from combat zones, and hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the borders into neighbouring countries.
I switch between news stations, and the images still confuse me. I've seen them before.
The devastation in Bucha is the devastation in Aleppo. Listening to Dr Lisa Lisitsa of Kyiv’s Okhmadyt Hospital saying that the hospital keeps patients who cannot be evacuated due to illness or who cannot be transferred to the underground shelter was like listening to the accounts of Syrian doctor Amani Ballour from the "Cave Hospital" in Ghouta of Damascus years before.
The Syrian children of Idlib, recovered from beneath the rubble, and the Ukrainian children of Sumy, despite their distance, share the same smile.
The Ukrainians pleading for a no-fly zone remind me of the Syrians who pleaded for the same. A Russian pilot who was captured by the Ukrainian army last month is thought to have previously bombed Syrian cities. I still recall seeing a photo of Russian pilots standing next to Bashar al-Assad and Putin hung up in Syria’s Hmeimim airport.
I pray that Putin’s forces do not use chemical weapons in Ukraine as their Syrian government partners did in Syria.
If al-Assad and Putin had been held accountable for their notorious crimes, we may not have seen the Syrian scenario replaying in Ukraine today.
Russia’s leadership does not brazenly commit heinous crimes in Ukraine before the eyes of the entire world because of Putin’s military superiority or economic power, but rather because of his conviction that he can attack the values of international humanitarian law, human rights, democracy, and the international system, while enjoying full impunity.
Putin only needs to look to Assad, his trusted partner in Syria. Instead of finding a man brought to justice for his war crimes, he finds a man walking free and some countries are even calling for normalisation of relations with him out of political pragmatism.
To ensure that the tragedies of Syria and Ukraine do not spread to other countries, the international community must uphold consistent principles and standards worldwide, leveraging its political efforts towards a robust reassertion of international law and democratic values wherever they are trampled on, irrespective of the perpetrator or the victims. It must ensure that there are more resources -- including enforcement mechanisms -- for the International Criminal Court, national war crimes units, and more willingness to create new types of institutions to plug current gaps in international justice and end impunity for war criminals.
I hope that we can build on the present global momentum and commitment to accountability for Russia’s abuses in Ukraine to create a turning point for international justice, one that also applies to Syria and other countries.
The international community’s response should ascribe equal importance to all victims of war worldwide. In the end, in our interconnected world, we all pay a price for every war for which perpetrators are not held to account.
Mazen Darwish is a lawyer and President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.