Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has provoked a war of national resistance. While some have described the invasion as "the biggest assault on a European state since World War Two,” more recent conflicts may reveal what is likely to unfold as the war continues. The ongoing conflict in Syria may be particularly instructive: Both Ukraine and Syria are — or were — relatively industrialized countries, and Russia either caused or has been a leading antagonist in these wars. In particular, the nature of the conflict, the presence of foreign fighters, and the refugee crisis that came to characterize the Syrian civil war may portend what is to come in Ukraine.
The Russian military increasingly appears to be applying the tactical lessons it learned from its intervention in Syria to the war in Ukraine. In Syria, densely populated cities often mounted significant resistance to the Assad regime. In response, the primary antagonists in the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime and its Russian backers, relied on siege warfare. This approach limited resource flows into the cities, breaking supply lines and crushing civilian support for fighters in urban centers.
To breach city defenses, the Russian military then indiscriminately bombed them — destroying civilian infrastructure like hospitals alongside military targets. Although civilian casualties mounted, urban shelling enabled the Russian-allied Syrian government to recapture territory street by street. Beyond urban warfare and indiscriminate bombing, the Assad regime also unleashed chemical weapons, including sarin nerve gas, in Syria to suppress and defeat resistance, allegedly aided and abetted by Russia.
Russia’s tactics in Ukraine show striking similarities to those used in Syria. Over the past month and a half the Russian military besieged and encircled cities and surrounding areas, like Mariupol and Kyiv. They indiscriminately bombed these locations, often leaving civilians who were unable to flee alongside Ukrainian military units. They have targeted theaters, hospitals, and train stations as well as military targets, causing over 1,800 estimated Ukrainian civilian deaths. At the same time, the U.S. government has increasingly raised alarms about the potential for Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine.
Russia’s seven-year involvement in the civil war in Syria suggests that urban warfare tactics of indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilian infrastructure are likely to continue, if not worsen, in Ukraine. The possible consequences of such a brutal approach will be not only widespread devastation of Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy but also significant civilian casualties.
The intensity of the conflict in Syria was unevenly distributed across the country. Throughout the war, certain areas saw intense fighting and contestation, with control of places like Raqqa changing hands multiple times. Other locations, like Tartous, have avoided significant battles and largely remained under government control. Even when fighting severed ties between cities and the central Syrian state, civilians in these places played a significant role in organizing day-to-day life and maintaining normalcy to the greatest extent possible.
Similarly, in Ukraine the intensity of conflict has varied significantly from region to region. Strategic locations and cities in the south and east of the country have been scenes of severe fighting, while most cities in the west remain largely untouched. In places where Russia has defeated Ukrainian forces, the Russian military has begun to shape local governance and administration by identifying political collaborators, kidnapping politicians who resist Russian rule, and playing Russian propaganda over the airwaves. Civilians' peaceful protests against Russian occupation are met with threats to cut access to water and electricity. If Russia's treatment of its own citizens is any indication, Russian oppression of Ukrainian civilians may intensify as opposition to Moscow’s rule increases. Indeed, the atrocities at Bucha are an indication of how Russia will consolidate political power and authority in occupied territories. If Kyiv falls or the Russian military breaks ties between the capital and other cities, civilians and political leaders elsewhere may need to establish self-reliant administrative systems to maintain daily life while defending against Russian attacks. This would include providing services like trash collection, electricity, schooling, and health care.
The influx of foreign fighters to Syria featured prominently in coverage of the civil war. Aspiring soldiers flocked to join the ranks of different sides, with leftists joining Kurdish fighters, while jihadists from Russia to Australia joined the Islamic State. As the conflict has moved to a close, the repatriation and reintegration of these foreign fighters has become an increasingly fraught security concern. Governments are hesitant to allow the return of individuals who may have combat training, connections to armed groups globally, and resentment against their home country: a potent combination for potential violence in their home countries.
Likewise, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted people from around the world to travel to Ukraine to fight. However, the presence of foreign fighters has raised concerns that the conflict could spread extremist right-wing ideologies. Though most foreign fighters have no connection to right-wing extremism, and historically they have often been treated as “cannon fodder” in other conflicts, extremists may gain skills that they could bring back home and might make them more lethal domestic terrorists. As violence by right-wing extremists is already on the rise, governments should increasingly monitor the dangers of right-wing extremists with combat experience and global connections to like-minded supporters.
The Syrian civil war caused nearly 7 million people to flee abroad to escape the violence that engulfed the country, alongside another nearly 7 million who are internally displaced. Although some Syrians resettled in Europe, the vast majority of refugees (5.5 million) are in neighboring countries in the Middle East, mainly Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Lebanon, for instance, absorbed far more Syrian refugees relative to its population than any other country in the world: almost 25% of Lebanon’s population. These refugees have presented unique challenges to host governments while exacerbating existing problems (such as trash collection and traffic).
An estimated 4 million Ukrainians have already fled the violence to neighboring European countries like Poland and Romania, which have been uncharacteristically generous in accepting refugees from Ukraine. Another 7 million Ukrainians have been displaced internally. Though host country hospitality should continue, governments should bear in mind the urgent needs of refugees — from basic necessities like food, clothing, and health care to longer-term essentials like schooling, housing, and employment — as well as the additional challenges to daily life resulting from the rapid and massive influx of people. These challenges are likely to persist during the war and for years after.
Takeaways for US policy
The similarities between the war in Syria and Ukraine offer many lessons for U.S. policymakers. Urban warfare is likely to be a continued feature of the conflict. U.S. military support should include weapons and defensive equipment suited for use in urban environments, and personnel who have technical expertise in using these weapons in densely populated environments should be made available to their Ukrainian counterparts. At the same time, U.S. support to Ukraine should include humanitarian aid that supplements the significant loss of civilian infrastructure: hospitals, utilities like electricity and communications, and food.
The uneven distribution of war also means that some areas of Ukraine could face greater devastation than others. Given the indiscriminate violence against civilians by Russian forces that some have considered to be genocidal, to the extent that it is logistically feasible, the U.S. may want to consider possible support for self-defense and administrative self-reliance efforts by Ukrainian civilians who fall outside the protection of the Ukrainian military. This could potentially draw lessons from U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish defensive and governance efforts against the Islamic State.
While the conflict remains ongoing, the United States should increase the number of refugees it takes in from Ukraine and elsewhere. Increasing refugee flows into the United States will alleviate the pressures to support refugees in countries that neighbor conflict-affected states.
The U.S. should also consider what victory looks like and the set of post-conflict policies that affect Ukraine, Europe, and the United States. In Syria, it is not clear what victory looks like. The Assad regime could remain in power, posing a potential threat to one-time U.S. allies, the Syrian Kurds, while the regime’s connection with Russia also weakens U.S. influence in the region. The endgame in Ukraine is similarly unclear. A negotiated settlement could give Russia the time to reorganize, regroup, and better prepare itself for an intensified attack. Similarly, for Ukraine the complete liberation of its territory from Russia leaves few guarantees against future invasion short of more widespread security guarantees. A victorious Russia that results in regime change could similarly trigger civil war and resistance against foreign imperialism, likely headed by any remaining Ukrainian military and political leaders.
If the conflict does come to a close and Ukraine liberates its territory from Russian occupation, post-conflict reconstruction will be a long and arduous process. U.S. foreign policy should focus on aiding the reconstruction of civilian emergency services, utilities, and rebuilding homes, roadways, and transit systems for refugees to return. In Europe, the reliance on Russian oil, gas, and coal remains a security risk. The U.S. now has an opportunity to promote and invest in renewable energies that would weaken the Russian economy while also progressing toward global climate goals. Finally, the United States should be concerned about the potential for returning right-wing extremists. Though unlikely, the already high activity of right-wing extremists in the United States could make individuals who fight in Ukraine and become radicalized by right-wing ideology especially lethal or better able to recruit others in pursuit of violent and devastating ends.
The war in Ukraine is unique in that it is an interstate war of conquest and annexation, not seen for many years in the international system. Nevertheless, the United States can still learn key lessons about the dynamics that could define this war from other conflicts, especially those in which Russia is a leading antagonist. Rather than approach the war in Ukraine as special or unique because it is unfolding in Europe, the U.S. should look to the Syrian civil war, which may provide a useful set of lessons learned and policies to consider both in the near and long term.
Megan A. Stewart is an Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service and a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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