A Russian military police armoured personnel carrier (APC) drives along a road in the countryside near the northeastern Syrian town of Amuda in Hasakeh province on October 24, 2019, as part of a joint patrol between Russian forces and Syrian Kurdish Asayish internal security forces near the border with Turkey.
'They will bomb everything': Syrian warns of Russian tactics
04:08 - Source: CNN
Istanbul CNN  — 

Abdel Kafi al-Hamdo cannot get Ukraine out of his mind. The 36-year-old Syrian spends his days following the news, tweeting messages of solidarity and teaching his five-year-old daughter Lamar how to draw the Ukrainian flag. He says few can understand what Ukrainians are going through as unimaginable images of war, death and suffering are transmitted around the world.

“No one can understand Ukrainians,” Hamdo told CNN. “No one in the world can understand them more than Syrians.”

For English teacher Hamdo, watching Russia’s war on Ukraine has brought back memories of the darkest days of his life – the siege of his city, Aleppo, in 2016.

Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.The war has caused hundreds of civilian deaths, including dozens of children, and forced more than three million people to flee the country.

But six years before its Ukraine war, Russia began another ruthless military operation thousands of kilometers away in Syria – to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime. Victims of that war say the scenes from Ukraine on their television screens look hauntingly familiar.

With the help of Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies turned eastern Aleppo into a kill box. Three-hundred thousand of its residents were besieged, cut off from food and bombed into submission in December, 2016. It was a tactic used throughout the war and across the country, including alleged chemical attacks, which it denied. Those who survived the shelling had to leave behind what was left of their homes.

“They destroyed us; they destroyed our psychology,” Hamdo said. He recalled going to a hospital days before he left the city only to find himself walking over bodies to get through to his friend.

“This is what will happen in Ukraine,” he said. “What’s going on in Ukraine is only the beginning.”

A Syrian boy walks amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Aleppo in July 2017.

Some in Syria say their country was the canary in the coalmine that the world chose to ignore. It was a testing ground for Russia’s war machine and a preview of its ambitions closer to home.

Hamdo was among a group of Aleppo residents who chronicled their life under siege. They posted daily videos on social media, appealing for the international community to save them. They say their calls fell on deaf ears.

“What’s affecting me a lot is that the world is repeating the same mistake [in Ukraine],” an emotional Hamdo told CNN. He said it pains him that condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine was as if “it’s [Russia’s] first war or first killing.”

“I cannot even imagine why people were blinded for 10 years,” he said.

In 2013, the Obama administration said that the Assad regime crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons on its own people. But Western states decided against military intervention.

Then, in 2015, the Russian military intervened to prop up a weakened Assad, turning the tide of war in his favor.Today, Russia maintains a presence in Syria and Assad has regained control of most of the country. Several Arab states have re-established diplomatic ties with his regime.

For Russia, the intervention had multiple advantages. It solidified its ally’s power, gave it a foothold in the region and invaluable military experience.

The Russian defense minister even boasted about using Syria as a testing ground for the military.

“We have tested over 320 [types of weapons], in fact, we have tested all the weapons, except for easy-to-understand versions [in Syria],” Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was quoted by Russian state media as saying in August.

Ismail al-Abdullah, a member of the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, witnessed firsthand the impact of those weapons on civilians. He was among the last group of Aleppo residents forced out of the city in 2016, having witnessed the pummeling of Syria’s second city by airstrikes. “Aleppo was like doomsday,” he told CNN.

“I saw buildings collapsed on the heads of families and children,” he said. “In one of the incidents 34 people were killed under a collapsed building by the bombing.