In March 2014, I visited Mafraq, a Jordanian city located about six kilometers away from the border with Syria. Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2012, many Syrians have crossed that border in search of refuge in Jordan. Among them was a Syrian man who had been tortured and almost killed by the Assad regime, and whose entire family had to flee the country.
“Do Russians understand that by supporting Assad, [Vladimir] Putin is responsible for the killing of innocent civilians?” he asked me. “Do Russian people know what is happening in Syria? Why don’t they do anything?” Perhaps, he never met an ordinary Russian before and was eager to know why the Russian people seemed so indifferent to the crimes committed by their government’s long-time ally in the Middle East.
Today, his questions are even more critical.
Russian military intervention in Syria started on September 30, 2015. Since its military intervention in Syria began, Russia has dramatically changed the situation on the ground, seriously weakening the opposition and helping the Assad regime regain control over swathes of territory.
The Russian public has, however, largely remained indifferent to how the intervention has affected the Syrian people. Last year the Levada Center, a leading Russian polling company, conducted a poll that showed Russians were more concerned with the cost of the intervention, deaths of Russian soldiers, and the possibility of increased terrorist threats at home – than with the intervention’s impact on Syrian civilians.
This indifference has largely been driven by state media propaganda portraying the Kremlin’s actions in Syria as a necessary and justified fight against international terrorism.
Russia has never distinguished between the moderate Syrian opposition and ISIS, referring to all groups opposing the Assad regime as terrorists. In March 2015, when President Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, he claimed that Russia’s mission – fighting terrorism – had been accomplished. But, the data gathered by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) debunked Russia’s claim that it was fighting ISIS. The data clearly showed that the main target of Russian bombing was opposition groups, not ISIS, particularly in and around Aleppo.
Today, a lot remains at stake for the Syrian opposition in Aleppo. As government forces try to gain full control of the city, civilians in its besieged eastern part have fallen victim to intensified bombing carried out by the regime and its allies.
Russia increased its airstrikes in Aleppo right before U.S. and Russian diplomats held talks at the UN last Thursday, September 22. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met to discuss the ceasefire that began on September 9 and broke down after a Syrian Red Crescent convoy providing humanitarian relief to 78,000 people in Aleppo, was bombed for several hours on Monday evening.
According to Bellingcat, an independent monitoring group specializing in open source and social media analysis, Russian bomb remains were uncovered at the site, suggesting either the Syrian regime or Russia was responsible for the attack. As usual, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied any involvement.
As long as Russia remains one of the major foreign players in Syria, the Russian people will be responsible for the destruction and death their government causes. It is high time they stop being indifferent and start paying attention to what the Kremlin is doing in their name.