Earthling: Is Ukraine becoming Syria?
Plus: Facebook goes to war; Can China bring peace? No-fly-zone know-nothings; etc.
This week BBC correspondent James Menendez asked Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN, “Is Ukraine turning into Syria?” She replied, “I think we have seen evidence that the Russians have used some of the same methods that they used in Syria, in Aleppo, and so we’re watching all of this very, very closely, and know that the war is not over yet and this could continue to get worse.”
This answer is fine insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Russian tactics—including a brutal indifference to civilian casualties—were indeed one reason that the Syrian civil war took half a million lives and created 6 million refugees. But there’s another reason, too: The US and some of its friends in Europe and the Middle East poured tons of weapons into Syria, along with, in some cases, foreign fighters.
Had it not been for that influx of firepower, Bashar al-Assad would have quickly and brutally crushed protesters and militants, and Russia would never have intervened. That would have been a very bad outcome—probably thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, killed. But it beats half a million killed plus six million refugees. And either way, Assad winds up in power and the rebellion is crushed.
In other words: Syria was a case where sustained outside military support for a worthwhile cause proved catastrophic in human terms—and failed, ultimately, to help the cause prevail. The version of the “Is Ukraine becoming Syria?” question that’s most worth pondering is the question of whether that pattern will be repeated.
I have no idea what the answer is. There are lots of differences between Ukraine and Syria (beginning with the fact that this time the US is fighting regime change rather than seeking it). But I think phrasing the question this way, and focusing attention on it, would at least help us clarify what we’re hoping to achieve by pouring more and more weapons into Ukraine, given that Russia can keep pouring resources into the fight for some time to come.
It’s certainly possible that the Biden administration’s internal deliberations reflect a keen understanding of the dangers of turning Ukraine into “another Syria”—of utterly wrecking the country, at great human cost, without fundamentally changing the outcome of the conflict.
But the administration’s public communications don’t reflect awareness of that danger. The final thing Thomas-Greenfield said, in trying to allay concerns that Ukraine could become another Syria, was: “We are prepared to continue to provide military support to the Ukrainians.”
For the first time, China has used the word “war” to describe the Ukraine conflict. Calling a war a war may seem like a small thing. But this departure from more euphemistic descriptions could signify growing discomfort in Beijing with the consequences of Russia’s invasion—among them China’s being linked to the war by virtue of prominent pre-war Xi-Putin bonding. And China—Russia’s main lifeline amid crushing sanctions—is uniquely positioned to push Russia toward a resolution of the war that Putin wouldn’t otherwise accept. So for once a seemingly vapid diplomatic formulation—“We hope to see fighting and the war stop as soon as possible,” China’s foreign minister was quoted as saying to his French counterpart—may be auspicious.
Quote of the week: Congresswoman Maria Salazar, after expressing support for a no-fly zone in Ukraine and being asked, “Wouldn’t that mean direct conventional warfare with Russia?” replied: “I don’t know what it will mean, but, you know, freedom is not free.” Here is some background information that Rep. Salazar may find helpful:
Al Jazeera spoke to political scientist Peter Harris about what a no-fly zone is and what imposing one in Ukraine would entail. It would involve shooting down any Russian planes flying over Ukraine and destroying Russian air defenses (some of which are in Russian territory)—a “pretty dramatic escalation by NATO,” Harris said. And once NATO entered direct military conflict with Russia, “then ultimately nuclear weapons are on the table.” Al Jazeera notes that the US and NATO have established no-fly zones in three countries in the last three decades: Iraq in 1992, Bosnia in 1993, and Libya in 2011—none of which was a nuclear power with strong air defenses or air forces. Meanwhile, a Reuters poll found that three fourths of Americans support working with NATO to set up a no-fly zone in Ukraine.