In Syria, when the regime escalated its aerial attacks on civilian neighborhoods in the fall of 2012, the Obama administration rejected calls for a no-fly zone and deployed the CIA to the south of Turkey to prevent shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from reaching Syrian rebels. Consequently, the regime’s ancient air force, which could have been neutralized with ease, continued to bomb civilian neighborhoods with impunity. Lumbering Soviet-era Mi-8 transport helicopters rained unguided barrel bombs on urban areas, making them far more dangerous than the front lines, which the regime was reluctant to bomb for fear of hitting its own soldiers.
As in Syria, the West opposes a no-fly zone in Ukraine and has shied away from providing the old Polish MiG-29 fighter jets requested by the Ukrainian government. But in stark contrast to Syria, it has been sending large shipments of shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank missiles, which have been wreaking havoc on Russian armor and deterring Russian gunships and jets from providing close tactical air support. According to photographic evidence gathered by the open-source researcher Oryx, Russia has already lost at least 32 helicopters and 13 jets, including four Su-34 fighter bombers, which had been redeployed after seven years of bombing Syria.
In 2014, as the Syrian regime intensified its attacks on civilians following Obama’s retreat from his “red line,” triggering the first mass flight of refugees, he was interviewed on CBS to explain his reluctance to arm the opposition: “When you get farmers, dentists, and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.”
Yet, farmers, dentists, and folks would hold the line against both the regime and the jihadis, until Russia entered the war and used air power to decisively turn the tide. And today it is farmers, dentists, and folks in Ukraine who are giving Russia a bloody nose.
In May 2014, after the Syrian regime captured the rebel enclave of Homs and forced its population to flee, graffiti was seen on a wall that read: “When I leave, remember I did everything I could to stay.”
In 2015, the Berlin Social Science Center carried out a survey of Syrian refugees and found that 92 percent wanted to return home if they could. The proportion of Ukrainians who would want to return to the comfort and familiarity of their homes is likely similar. No one willingly chooses the indignity and uncertainty of forced exile. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” writes the Somali poet Warsan Shire. No one wants the normalcy of their lives to be subject to the uncertain whims of a host society.
For now, Europe is generous, because it assumes this conflict will be resolved at the same fast pace at which it developed. One hopes that this generosity endures. One also hopes that the admirable way Europe welcomed Ukrainian refugees becomes a model for how it treats refugees in general. [Continue reading…]