Putin’s unpunished savagery in Syria begets attack on Ukraine

Leader’s promotion of military ‘butcher’ shows lack of fear of war accountability

The appointment of the “Butcher of Syria”, Capt Gen Alexander Dvornikov to overall command in the Ukraine does not guarantee a Russian victory. It does presage more savagery.

In the 10 months during which Dvornikov was in charge of the Russia air bombardment in Syria he showed contempt for the laws of war, targeting attacks on civilians and bombing hospitals, schools, mosques, markets, farms and even bread queues. There was nothing unusual about this savagery which is typical of Russian commanders and their tactics in previous conflicts.

The Assad regime had been pursuing its own version of a scorched earth crackdown since 2011 in a bid to not only crush but to also erase all traces of the peaceful uprising in that year when the Arab Spring bloomed in Syria. However, in spite of its brutality, the regime was on the verge of collapse in 2015 when President Bashar al-Assad appealed to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to intervene.

Dvornikov was the first Russian commander appointed in Syria and he unleashed a merciless aerial bombardment, in particular against the city of Aleppo, in a bid to crush the Syrian opposition. Russian bombing played a decisive role in the fall of the city which proved to be a turning point in Assad’s fortunes .


The brutal bombing campaign instigated by Dvornikov may have saved the Assad regime and earned him the title of “Hero of the Russian Federation” in 2016 but it has to be remembered that Syria is not the Ukraine.

Dvornikov was the first Russian commander appointed in Syria and he unleashed a merciless aerial bombardment, in particular against the city of Aleppo

The biggest difference is that Syria’s rebels never managed to obtain anti-aircraft weapons and systems from the US or the EU, who feared they would fall into the hands of jihadists. (It is stating the obvious to point out the Syrian rebels did not have an airforce.) Dvornikov, to put it crudely, was effectively shooting fish in a barrel especially in Aleppo where his bombers inflicted such devastation.

Killing civilians

But we saw in Kyiv that in spite of vastly superior numbers and fire power, Russian forces were decisively defeated. So what was the Ukrainian’s secret if it is a secret at all? Undoubtedly it was that they denied the Russians the kind of aerial dominance they enjoyed in Syria .

It is also becoming increasingly clear as reports of atrocities against Ukrainians mount that targeting civilians – especially in a bid to break resistance – is not proving as successful a strategy in Ukraine as it did in Syria and previous conflicts.

Russian tactics show little regard for the safety of civilians in conflict zones and indeed see the destruction of civilian infrastructure as a key component of achieving area dominance.

This was the approach adopted in Chechnya where the capital Grozny was reduced to rubble in 1999. It was the same with Aleppo in Syria and, of course, in recent weeks, Mariupol in eastern Ukraine where Dvornikov was in charge before his appointment to overall command.

In his decision to appoint Dvornikov, Putin seems to have learned little from his failure to take Kyiv and the lesson that targeting civilians can backfire. If anything, the attacks have made the Ukrainians even more determined to repel the Russians. It remains to be seen whether morale can be sustained, and the willingness of the EU and the US to continue to supply arms and humanitarian aid will be an important factor.

Brutal atrocities

But Dvornikov is also working against the clock. Putin apparently wants to be able to announce some kind of victory on May 9th at the annual military parade in Moscow celebrating Russia’s victory over the Nazis in the second World War.

Putin remains undeterred by US and EU leaders' threats to hold him accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine

This all points towards even more brutal atrocities involving the targeting of civilians and potential war crimes. It is clear from the decision to promote Dvornikov and the tactics he champions that Putin remains undeterred by US and EU leaders’ threats to hold him accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. Dvornikov is probably equally unworried.

This is no surprise as there has been no concerted effort to hold either man accountable for what happened in Syria.

If US president Joe Biden and EU leaders want to make the threat of accountability real in Ukraine, they should get behind current efforts to hold Putin and the “Butcher of Syria” accountable for atrocities such as Aleppo. It might make them think twice.

These include efforts by Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Khateab and the international human rights lawyer Toby Cadman to bring Russia before the European Court of Human Rights for bombing hospitals in Syria. The case should be formally filed with the court in July.

Not using every available avenue to deter escalating atrocities almost amounts to complicity. There is a growing consensus that the complete failure to pursue accountability in Syria encouraged Putin to think he could get away with something similar in Ukraine.

Ronan Tynan is an independent film-maker. He directed the documentary Bringing Assad to Justice