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Russia's Syria playbook in Ukraine

Episode Summary

Russia played a key role in Syria's civil war. Which tactics are they reusing in Ukraine?

Episode Notes

Aerial strikes, targeting civilians, cutting off supply chains: Russia’s brutal war tactics in Ukraine are shocking, but also hauntingly familiar. These are tactics the country has used before.

Six years before Russia launched its brutal attack on Ukraine, it began another horrific military operation in Syria. Today, we talk about what we can learn about Russia’s strategy in Ukraine from its involvement in Syria. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Middle East correspondent Nabih Bulos

More reading:

Syrian fighters ready to join next phase of Ukraine war

Humanitarian corridors, from Syria to Ukraine, explained

Russia has been Assad’s greatest ally — as it was to his father before him

Episode Transcription

Working title: Russia’s haunting playbook 

Gustavo: Aerial strikes, targeting civilians, cutting off supply chains. 

Russia's brutal war tactics in Ukraine are shocking. But also hauntingly familiar. 

These are tactics the country has used before. 

AP Tape: Syria’s civil war has turned more brutal, more violent, and more dangerous over the past year.
AP Tape: That means that the explosion of all the area, not only Syria.

Gustavo: Six years before Russia launched its brutal attack on Ukraine. It began another horrific military operation, more than a thousand miles away in Syria.

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Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times.

 It's Tuesday, May 10th, 2022. 

Today: How understanding Vladimir Putin’s Syria strategy could help explain how the war’s playing out in Ukraine. 

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Gustavo: My L.A. Times colleague and Middle East bureau chief, Nabih Bulos, has covered both conflicts and he joins us today to talk about what he's seen. Nabih, welcome to THE TIMES.

Nabih: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Gustavo: First off, Americans haven't thought about the Syrian war in years–if they ever did. How did it all start? And who's been involved? 

Nabih: God, the Syrian civil war. It all feels like ancient history at this point. But it began in part of the Arab Spring revolutions. We had the moment in Tunisia and then another revolution in Egypt. And then along the way, the dominoes seemed to finally hit, uh, in Syria. I mean, people will often dispute the beginning of this, right? I mean, people who are pro government would say that this was all a big conspiracy that fomented this unrest. And then there are those who will tell you also that this was a spontaneous uprising that then just evolved into civil war when the government refused to back down or refused to actually give up power. I mean, whichever, you know, interpretation you want to have for it. The result is finally the same in the sense that now the country is essentially in ruins.And so it was very sad in Syria, I have to say. And yeah, there are echoes of what we're seeing now in Ukraine of course.

Gustavo: And it eventually turned into a larger proxy war, right? It seemed anyone with any interest in the Middle East ended up being involved one way or another. 

Nabih: In some ways yes. I mean, it should be said that some of the original notions, right, the idea of toppling the government, these had been grassroots ideas as well. But as time went on, right, you had various actors getting involved, handing over weapons, handing over cash, handing over support for the rebels. And so this became a situation where yes, you had a proxy war. And of course later on, when ISIS appeared on the scene, you had of course a full-on proxy situation where the US was actually fighting ISIS via its Kurdish allies in the Northeast.

Gustavo: And then Russia enters the picture...

Nabih: So Russia came in around 2015 and it came in at a moment when the government seemed on the verge of falling.

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AP Tape: Russia says it's targeting Islamic state positions, but a senior U.S. official says the strikes appear aimed at groups fighting Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime 
AP Tape: Putin’s ambitions are blindingly obvious, my friends. He wants to prop up Assad, play King Magnetar in any transition, undermine US policy and operations and ultimately expand Russian power in the Middle East.
AP Tape: The strikes began after Russian lawmakers approved Vladimir Putin’s request to use force in Syria amid Western concerns that Russia will also target the Syrian opposition. 

Nabih: People don't remember this, perhaps, this was around September of 2015. And if memory serves, about two months before that, Assad had a really remarkable speech where he basically said…

Aljazeera Press Conference: For the first time since the war began in Syria, President Bashar Assad admits government forces have a problem.

Nabih: The army couldn't be everywhere at once. They had enough material, but they didn't have enough people to fight those battles. And so they had to do what he called at the time, a strategic retreat. And the government seemed poised to lose control of most of the country and seemed like it's heartland areas, you know, especially in the coast and Damascus, et cetera. Were on the verge of being called overrun. 


Nabih: And that's when the Russians came in.

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Nabih: And really within about six months, they had really shifted the government's fortunes anew, it was really quite impressive. The quickness of the turnaround.

Gustavo: Yeah. The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as he said, he was on the ropes, but with Russia's help, he was able to stay in power and regain control over big parts of the country. But what did Russia get out of helping Al-Assad?

Nabih: You know, the common narrative was that it had the warm water port in Tartus, right?  This coastal city in Syria. And of course they wanted to build influence in the Middle East. And it's worth saying that because of that situation, you know, Russia has a big word in the Middle East when it comes to Turkey, when it comes to Egypt, when it comes to Jordan, et cetera. I mean, it's been involved in a lot of decision making processes now. So that's an important point for this intervention.

Gustavo: What's Russia's involvement right now in Syria?

Nabih: Actually, that was being reduced, right? Its footprint they're slowly being reduced because //  they're forced to divert, uh, forces to // obviously Ukraine at this point. So, I mean, it's still basically involved in ostensibly peacekeeping efforts, 

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Nabih: But otherwise, you know, they're basically, I think trying to just negotiate some kind of a settlement there. Very, very slowly, perhaps like acting in some, you know, some level of bad faith I have to say. But that's the attempt.

Gustavo: And as you said, Russia has now turned its attention to Ukraine, which is its own thing, of course. The histories of Russia and Ukraine are very intertwined. Russia and Russia alone has pursued a massive ground war like in Syria. And thousands of soldiers have died so far in Ukraine for Russia. But I'm curious whether Ukraine can also be seen as an extension of some of the same foreign policy goals that you mentioned Putin accomplished in Syria.

Nabih: Perhaps in the sense of the idea of Russia being a major power, right. Of Russia's area of influence being respected, you could perhaps extrapolate from that. But I think it's actually worth stressing that it is very, very different.


Nabih: The cost that Russia paid for in Syria is nowhere near what it's paying for in Ukraine, right? And the involvement also is nowhere near the same. It is very different in terms of context.

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Gustavo: The context might be different, but are the tactics the same? After the break, how Russia is using its Syrian playbook on the battlefield of Ukraine.

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Gustavo: Nabih, for weeks now, we've seen reports talking about the similarities between Putin’s tactics in Syria and those in Ukraine. What are those tactics exactly?

Nabih: Now… they go in with a ton of artillery..

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Nabih:  just pummel and level,

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Nabih: every building they have in front of them. And then they send in the soldiers to quote unquote cleanse, whatever remains.

AP Tape: Ukrainian southern port city of Mariupol has been cut off for weeks as Russian forces have laid siege,
AP Tape: The mayor of Mariupol, Ukraine, says more than 10,000 civilians in his city have died as a result of the Russian the siege.
AP Tape: An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that the Russian attack on a theater in Mariupol killed close to 600 people.


Nabih: Obviously we’ve seen this in Mariupol now where you just basically have a constant, continuous pummeling, right? A scorched earth technique where basically every building is destroyed.

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Nabih: The reason why they do this is because, you know, these buildings are the natural defense for insurgents or for defenders.

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Nabih: They can be used to sort of defend against tanks, right? You have actually a higher level where you can fight, you know, where the tank turrets, cannot reach. You have great places to hide for snipers. They can move from room to room undercover. If they dig a hole through the wall.

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Nabih: So it's all very different situation, of course. And that's why you see just this total pummeling of cities like Mariupol right now.

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Gustavo: The world saw this in Syria, most notoriously with Aleppo. It used to be the country's largest city and in 2016 it faced those tactics. And you were one of the few Western journalists there at the time. What were the Russians targeting in Aleppo? And what was the result?

Nabih: I mean, at that point, they were targeting everything.

Nabih Tape: This is east Aleppo. This is what four years of war have done here.

Nabih: It's hard to say that they were targeting one thing. Of course, they attacked the areas where there were lots of civilians as well.

Nabih Tape: All you see around you is just… destruction…

Nabih: And that's partly a function of just having all these billions crammed in one area.

Nabih Tape: Look in this work, you see a lot of this stuff. But, you know, in war zones, normally there's like, let's say… It's more like a war donut hole. So that donut hole area's bad. And then the rest is okay. Right? That's not the case here.

Nabih: I mean, no matter what you targeted with these high-impact weapons, these wide-impact weapons, I should say, of course, you're going to have casualties. And it should also be said that Russia was proven to have targeted the hospitals, bakeries, civilian infrastructure. 

Nabih Tape: I can't even imagine the cost of rebuilding the area, not to mention society.

Nabih: And whether it was targeted because it could also be used by the fighters in that civilian population, you know, or not – it's irrelevant, right? The fact is that people died, who had nothing to do with the conflict. And just because they were close by.

Nabih Tape: No matter which side you support..I just – you mourn the death of a city.

Nabih: And we're seeing the same thing here where this is basically, you know, just a massive artillery war.

Nabih Tape: I’m standing in front of another residential building that got hit last night. This time with a missile that was intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses, and then fell here.

Nabih: Even if you're targeting something that's within, you know, 10 meters of your target. The fact is that the damage is going to be much wider than that. And people will have their homes destroyed.

Nabih Tape: I'm here right now in a cultural center on the edge of…. And this place is. This place is slammed. It's also a very surreal situation.

Gustavo: If anything, it seems like those tactics are going to continue because a few weeks ago, Putin announced that a new general would now oversee the war in Ukraine. And his nickname is supposedly the “Butcher of Syria.” Is that right?

Nabih: Right, the general is Aleksandr Dvornikov . And so again, this is one of those apocryphal stories. I mean, he was a general indeed who did serve as one of the commanding officers in Syria, but his tactics weren't necessarily all that different from his predecessors there. And they followed the same playbook, which is that you go in there, you basically starve the population when it comes to this insurgency within the city, you basically make it so that they have to submit, right? Whether it's through a total siege or whether it's through artillery, you know, whatever you do, you basically want them to not have any breathing space. You know, they're not flushed out by the bombing, but they finally submit because the suffering is just too great for them and the population around them.

Gustavo: Did Russia suffer any repercussions for all the attacks that it had on civilians in Syria?

Nabih: No, of course not. And the fact is that this isn't the way these things work.

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Nabih: I mean, very few countries, you know, that have been bombing the population, especially in their world and Middle East and elsewhere. I mean, they suffer very little consequences in general, right? I mean, I don't remember the last time, you know, anyone from the US suffered real consequences for an incorrect bombing. Right? And certainly the Russians aren't either.

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Nabih: There might be a bit more sort of accountability with Ukraine, perhaps because you know, there's more attention, but the fact is that: no Russia hasn't had to pay for what they did in Syria.

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Gustavo: More, after the break.


Gustavo: Nabih, I'm interested in what Russia's war tactics mean for the people caught in the crosshairs. Do we know the civilian casualty count so far in Ukraine?

Nabih: So the UN has given a figure of about 3,150, but of course it should be said, this is probably a massive undercount. I mean, we really have no idea at this point. And we certainly have no idea about the military casualties either as well. So it's very, very opaque.

Gustavo: We're just two months into the fighting. On the other hand, the conflict in Syria has been going on since 2011. Any estimate of how many people have died in Syria's war.

Nabih: I mean, the last figure you heard was 350,000. I think that was from 2018 from the UN, but they stopped counting just years ago.

Gustavo: Wow. In your coverage, what has been the refugee situation for Ukrainians and Syrians escaping their respective wars?

Nabih: So when it comes to Ukraine, we're talking about a third of the population now between, you know, 5.5 who have left the country and 7.7 that are displaced internally. With Syria, I mean, right now, I think in total, it comes out to about half. And of course, I mean, it's devastating in both situations. But Syria, I think it was 26 million, you know, pre-war population. Whereas Ukraine is about 41.5. It's also a huge country, really very, very large.

Gustavo: And then the damages to cities and towns in Syria and Ukraine, all that infrastructure. What's the scale of the destruction?

Nabih: I mean one hesitates to compare obviously with these things. But I mean, I should be said, that right now, you know, this is still early days, of course. And we really haven't seen the full sort of scale of the Russian military machine. But the fact is that, you know, the destruction in Syria, it's much more of course.

Nabih Tape: I’m being taken right now on a tractor, that's clearing all the mud in this area right here near the great mosque of Aleppo. And it's a sign of some major renovations. It used to be the sign of some major…

Nabih: But, you know, we're still in a situation in Ukraine where the damage is, let's say relatively, you don't want to say minor of course, but it's not as, it's not as devastating as what I've seen in Syria.

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Gustavo: What can Ukranians right now learn from Syrians?

Nabih: Well, I mean, perhaps the most important thing is how to keep this in the news.

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Nabih: It should be said that Syria perhaps, when it fell off the map, things became very much stalemated. And it just, you know, the interest is gone now, unfortunately, and that's a sad thing because the country needs help. The country needs some kind of resolution and it's not going to come with a situation as it is now.

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Nabih: So I think it's important. Just sort of to keep Ukraine in the news, right. To keep eyes on the situation. And in terms of, I guess, fighting: If the government is on the back foot, right? If the Russians advanced and all these are big ifs, it's gonna be a situation where I think, you know, you're gonna need to have these people ready for the long haul for the long fight. That's going to see their cities being destroyed unfortunately.

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Gustavo: You covered both of the conflicts, you're still covering what's going on in Ukraine. What are some of the differences that you see between both of the situations?

Nabih: Well, I mean, of course, in terms of the support that's being given to the Ukrainians versus that was given to the Syrian rebels. I mean, ostensibly, the Syrian rebels were supported by the west, but the level of support is nowhere near what we've seen when it comes to Ukraine.

AP Tape: For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.
AP Tape: Since Russia invaded Ukraine just over two months ago, we have sent more than $3 billion and security assistance to Ukraine.
Tape: And we will give you the support that you need, the economic support, but also of course, the defensive military support, in which I'm proud to say that the UK helped to, to lead the way.

Nabih: And we're talking about intelligence help, we're talking about weapons help, you know, weapons provision, right. Just building up a logistics pipeline that's helping them fight to the end. So that's really a big deal. And just, I guess also the tenor of the support. I mean, yeah, there are some voices perhaps calling for being careful, for not sort of provoking Russia more than one needs to. But in terms of just the sheer enthusiasm for the defense of Ukrainians, it's just, incredible to see, you know, compared to what it was in Syria. And it should also be said, I mean, for other parts of the Arab world, I mean, the tactics we see employed by the Ukrainians creating multiple cocktail factories, you know, setting up for this insurgency, that stuff is applauded when it comes to Ukraine but very much, you know, condemned when it comes to the Middle East. And especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel. Obviously it's a very sensitive topic, but the situation is very different and the perception of it.


Gustavo: Finally Nabih….I’m wondering what the quiet moments are like in covering war. In Ukraine…you’ve posted these videos with pets… or standing in these huge, empty landscapes...What’s it like to find these peaceful moments in the middle of so much violence?

Nabih Tape: Hi,

Nabih: You know, the sad part is that the countries are actually gorgeous.

Nabih Tape: Oh, look at this puppy. And there's another one over there. Hi baby..Cuties.

Nabih: I mean now it's springtime filing Ukraine. And so you have just these wide open tracts of farmland, right? Just Emerald green. It actually reminds me of the Windows XP screensaver, where you have this wide open field, right.

Nabih Tape: We're here right now in what appears to be a vegetable storage facility of some sort. I mean, God, the smell is – there've been better smells.

Nabih: But at the same time, I mean the sad part is that the war so often intrudes.

Nabih Tape: I have to admit. I'm not sure why this area was hit.


Nabih: And the way this happens is you're in this field and it looks empty and you can hear the birds chirping. And then suddenly, you know, you hear the success of booms of artillery or a multiple rocket launcher system.

Nabih Tape: All right. If you're looking out…

Nabih: Just activating at that moment and it brings you back to the fact that war is here, especially in the east where this is heating up unfortunately.

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Nabih Tape: Columns of smoke seem to indicate, also the constant  firing, but it's still going on.

Nabih: So it's hard.

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Gustavo: Nabih, thank you so much for this conversation.

Nabih: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

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Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

Kasia Brousalian was the jefa on this episode, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin.

Congrats to pulitzer prize winning colleague.  

Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow THE TIMES on whatever platform you use. 

And a special congratulations to our colleagues in the LA Times newsroom. Marcus Yam won the Pulitzer for breaking news photography for his coverage of the fall of Kabul Afghanistan last summer. And a bunch of our colleagues were part of the coverage of an accidental shooting death on the set of the film Rust last year. That earned them a finalist nod in the breaking news category. We highlighted both of their work in previous episodes of this podcast. Great job, everyone!

And me? I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.

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