|7 Mar 2022|
|History & Politics|
For the last five years Russian forces, fighting alongside the Assad regime, have waged complex battles in Syrian towns and cities, apparently unconstrained by the Geneva Convention or the rules of war. These battles rage, often unreported, but very real for those unfortunate enough to be caught up in them.
Now, as Kyiv braces for an all-out assault, it seems clear that Vladimir Putin has been using Syria as a live battle-lab to hone his forces’ skills and trial equipment. Syria, his newest operating base on Europe’s southern edge, is looking increasingly like the first chapter in the execution of his grand plan; recreating the old Soviet Union boundaries and establishing a new ‘greater Russia’. We should not regard Ukraine’s invasion as simply blind adventurism, but as an integral part of this scheme. The real question is where it will take Putin’s Russia next.
Fighting in towns and cities has yielded some of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. Having lost over a million Red Army soldiers and countless civilians in the WW2 battle for Stalingrad, this is something of which the Russian psyche has ample experience. Russia’s thousands of tanks and aircraft will mean little once the fighting begins in earnest on the streets of Kyiv, where a single neighbourhood can soak up thousands of soldiers, and mighty tanks are susceptible to attack from all angles.
Casualties could be horrific on both sides, and the understandably flaky moral of the Russian conscripts seems unlikely to hold for long; certainly not as long as the dogged defenders of Ukraine. It is easy for Putin to make grandiose claims and direct his armies from his lair in Moscow, but these empty boasts won’t offer much comfort to the young conscripts on the frontline, knee deep in mud, with death around every corner.
I’ve seen the Russians at close quarters in Syria, providing firepower to Assad, and often witnessing his troops being massacred. Along the way, however, they will have learnt vital lessons about succeeding in the harshest environments.
Russia’s ongoing bombardments will eventually raze Kyiv to the ground, as they did in Aleppo and other Syrian cities. Yet once this happens, no amount of thermobaric or high explosive weaponry will shift a determined defender. The civilians will hide underground, safe-ish from attack, while the Ukrainian soldiers and militias stalk amongst the rubble taking out tanks and Russian infantry.
To counter this in Syria, Assad favours scorched earth tactics; raining down incendiary white phosphorus bombs and rockets which set everything in their path alight, and force civilians to flee. If this fails, they resort to chemical weapons such as chlorine barrel bombs; liquid chlorine canisters pushed out of helicopters. The heavier-than-air gas sinks underground, killing people in their bunkers or forcing them above ground to be captured or shot.
In 2016, Assad’s forces used such attacks to break the four-year conventional siege of Aleppo after a mere 13 days. The five-year siege of Ghouta and the six-year siege of Douma ended in similar fashion. These atrocities may have been executed by Assad, but they occurred under Putin’s watch. Would he shrink from using similar methods in Kyiv? He, after all, ordered chemical weapons to be used on my home city, Salisbury.
These weapons are morbidly effective in cities, and those without morals or scruples would use them all the time. Sadly Putin is devoid of both. He is already threatening the international community with nuclear weapons and Ukraine with only slightly smaller battlefield models - the former to terrify us into making our leaders capitulate and the latter to spook Ukraine into surrender. To these threats, using chemical weapons to gain a swift victory seems a worryingly small step to take.
This is why Boris Johnson must lead the world in banning chemical weapons permanently, first in Ukraine - then everywhere else. Far too much is at stake for this to be derailed by political point-scoring, as happened in Westminster almost a decade ago, when Assad used the nerve agent Sarin to slaughter 1500 Damascus civilians. This is no time for equivocation or delay, but true statesmanship in one of our darkest hours.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is the former commander of the UK’s CBRN regiment and Nato’s CBRN battalion.