Russian jets and missiles were key to Assad beating back rebel groups and ultimately turning the tide of the war. But those bombs also transformed vibrant cities such as Aleppo into modern-day ruins, a graveyard of concrete husks rendered skeletal by the might of the Kremlin’s air power.
Russia has always maintained that it only targets “terrorist groups.” At the same time, it has justified its actions by saying that the United States has itself bombed civilians and thus has “no right to lecture Russia.”
Nevertheless, the human suffering from Russia’s military actions is undeniable, and rights groups have produced countless reports detailing how Russia and Syria indiscriminately bombed hospitals, schools and homes.
A report in 2020 by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, for example, said it had “reasonable grounds to believe” Russia was guilty of war crimes after its aircraft bombed a marketplace and a compound for displaced civilians.
As in Ukraine, humanitarian corridors were created around rebel-held areas to allow civilians to flee. Assad and his backers were often accused of violating the cease-fires that upheld these corridors, and Russia accused the rebels of breaching these cease-fires, too.
In Ukraine, Russia denies that it is even waging a war at all, instead calling it a “special military operation” against the “neo-Nazis” running the government in Kyiv and limited to legitimate military targets — claims that have little basis in reality.
“Violations of the Geneva protocols or violations of laws of armed conflict have certainly been prevalent in their operations not only in Syria, Chechnya, Georgia, but now also in Ukraine,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a former three-star Air Force general who oversaw aerial operations in Iraq in 1991 and Afghanistan in 2001.
“One of the elements of the Russian way of war that is common to all of these conflicts is a disregard for civilian life,” he said.
For many Syria-watchers, there was also an echo of that conflict this week when Russia warned that Ukraine was developing a “biological weapons program” — a conspiracy theory also nurtured by the American far-right. Likewise when Assad and his Moscow backers were accused of using chemical weapons in Syria, they often claimed it was a staged attack by rebels on their own people.