Sit next to locals, not in their place: Dispatch for Ukraine from Syria
For Syrians, Russia’s aggressive tactics in Ukraine are hauntingly familiar. Impunity Watch speaks to Syrian activists about the opportunity to cement solidarity, and on what mistakes to mend.
1. Documenting war crimes
“International expertise should not overshadow local knowledge.”
Mohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian activist and founding Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), which documents human rights violations in Syria to support transitional justice and accountability efforts. SJAC’s open-source data management system, Bayanat, recently became available to Ukrainian human rights groups.
Since the invasion began, at least 11,000 alleged Russian war crimes have been registered in Ukraine.
Abdallah says that documenting war crimes can help get justice for victims, establish the truth and contribute to peace.
“Each conflict presents different versions of truth, and each side will claim they did nothing wrong. Documentation helps establish a more clear narrative and help survivors cope with the aftermath - which in turn helps transitional justice processes.”
“Conversely, a lack of documentation can lead to bad transitions. For example in Lebanon, no one has been held accountable [for the crimes of the Lebanese civil war] and 17,000 people are still missing. Victims feel they never received justice, and there has been no push to pursue disarmament and the rule of law.”
He added that proof of war crimes can help push for justice even before a trial is possible and that "documentation makes it harder to sweep atrocities under the carpet" while giving the example of the Tadamon massacre.
The activist also stressed the need for evidence to be verifiable if Russia is to be held to account.
“Twelve years into the Syrian conflict, I have mostly seen poor quality evidence, incomplete or based on hearsay."
He added this can lead to the defence in a trial finding loopholes in testimonies and lead to the human rights community being discredited, or even "play into the hands of Russian propaganda”.
“Good documentation means conducting in-depth interviews, categorising data and establishing linkages between different types of data. For instance, an interview with a victim of abuse at a checkpoint can be supported through video or satellite images. It also helps to establish the command structure of the violation and who issued the order – for example, by looking at the weapons used.”
“This was a big gap in Syria, because we lacked knowledge of international criminal law. The advantage in Ukraine is the process is led by the state, with international cooperation.”
Drawing similarities between the two conflicts, he said documentation of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas through satellite images in both cases "helped to show there were no military targets" and confirm that the intention was to instill fear rather than achieve military objectives.
Abdallah is, however, cautious about the role of international institutions:
“Many international organisations do not have enough knowledge of the context and its sensitivities, and don’t use a victim-centred approach. There have been alarming reports of survivors and refugees being interviewed multiple times by different [war crime] experts, and potentially getting re-traumatised.”
“We need to step up the level of coordination, rather than competition between international and local organisations. In Syria, we had many international organisations telling us what to, despite having less knowledge.”
“Sit next to locals, not in their place.”
And while Abdallah welcomes the huge undertaking by the ICC to gather evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, he maintains that documentation and justice efforts should go beyond prosecutions. “Truth speaking must be used as part of the healing process, to allow people to grieve and move on. Putting one person behind bars will not help.”
2. Gender and women’s representation
“Women’s leadership is very important on the local and national level.”
Lubna Alkanawati is a Syrian human rights defender and Deputy Executive Director at Women Now for Development, an organisation working to protect, empower and support women and girls in Syria and Lebanon. She took part in the early demonstrations against the Syrian regime, and was forced to flee the country in 2014.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, women in Ukraine have played a crucial role in their country’s response, but also experienced immense suffering.
According to Alkanawati, we need to use an ‘intersectional lens’ when considering the role of gender in conflict.
“War affects vulnerable groups like women the most. They suffer from structural violence, and conflict makes it worse. However, women under siege are affected differently than women outside the siege. Women staying in their country experience things differently from those fleeing.”
“Women in conflict face new vulnerabilities including a lack of protection, an increased risk of sexual violence and psychological impacts. They may lose access to health services. In Ukraine, we have seen harrowing images of women giving birth in hospitals without electricity, which reminded me of the same in Syria. ”
As the case of Syria shows, these vulnerabilities increase with time. “The longer the conflict, the deeper the impact. In emergency situations, women’s and children’s rights often take a backseat. Early marriages increase, reproductive health suffers and the space for discussions on gender shrink.”
‘Excluded from leadership’
“From my experience in Syria, women are usually excluded from leadership in the design and distribution of humanitarian aid – which is led by large donor organisations.”
However, women are far from being silent victims:
“In Syria, women-led civil society groups mobilised quickly to address humanitarian needs, and led the displacement response. The peaceful revolution also changed a lot of gender rules, and proved that women can do anything: take care of the house, make decisions, and earn money – whilst serving other women and their community."
“In France, where I am living now, we see Ukrainian women refugees starting their own initiatives to send medical aid to their country. Women’s leadership is very important on the local and national level, and must be supported.”
Alkanawati welcomes the largely positive response from European countries to support Ukrainian refugees, most of whom are women and children, providing housing, transportation and the right to work - but is concerned this support will not last:
“What happens if the war continues? At the beginning of the invasion, we saw a lot of demonstrations in cities around Europe, but now only activists and civil society organisations are still involved.”
“I really hope Ukraine will not face the same fate as Syria, and European countries will do something to stop Putin. We must put pressure on decision-makers. It’s not enough to send aid and host people. People want to go home.”
For Alkanawati, one of the drivers of war is militarised masculinities – the idea that men must prove their worth through fighting and military action.
“The eagerness to dominate is something very patriarchal and that’s still relevant across the world. When Putin declared war back in February, no-one dared to stop it.”
“In contrast, people calling for social change and justice do not use violence. Women and other civil society groups adopt alternative systems centred on justice and people’s needs, for example advocating for curbing the weapon industry and the sale of weapons to dictators.”
“Transformative change requires us to transform masculinities and adopt such new tools – but we are facing huge resistance.”
“We do not see women at negotiation tables or hear many women’s voices. Similarly, in Syria there was no meaningful engagement of women in Track 1 [official diplomacy] processes.”
Alkanawati hopes that in the future, the international community will respond to conflict differently. “We need a response that is sustainable and includes women and civil society in a meaningful way - not just to fill quotas.”
3. Humanitarian aid
“Focus on addressing root causes of armed conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes.”
Dr. Tayseer Alkarim is a Syrian physician, humanitarian and researcher, with over a decade-long career in humanitarian response, particularly in violence and displacement settings. He recently co-led a medical programme in Ukraine, where he visited hospitals and met with Ukrainian colleagues dealing with the casualties of Russia’s military invasion.
Despite the echoes of Russia’s aggression in Syria reverberating in Ukraine, Dr. Alkarim noted key distinctions.
"Though the humanitarian crises are similar, the dynamics of the armed conflicts are different.”
“In addition, the pace of destruction and displacement in Ukraine is unparalleled. In only three months around 35% of Ukrainains have been displaced internally or abroad, and many cities partly or entirely demolished, reflecting the ferocity and brutality of the invasion."
The international community responded quickly, from imposing sanctions on Russia to providing support for the displaced. Dr. Alkarim welcomes this, but says that it must become the norm, not the exception.
“The international community needs to shift from reacting to catastrophes to preventing them. Tight sieges, deliberate attacks on public institutions such as hospitals and schools, uprooting people from their homes, and misapplying ‘humanitarian corridors’ to achieve military gains happened in Syria and are now occurring in Ukraine."
“Stricter policies, practices, and actions must be developed to protect conflict-affected communities from unimaginable suffering. War criminals and human rights violators must be held accountable.”
“We cannot wait for another crisis to occur before sending the message that war crimes are not ok.”
The mandate of the UN in this respect is woefully inadequate: “How is it possible that Russia is still deciding the fate of Ukraine in the UN Security Council?”
Dr. Alkarim echoes the call of Ukrainians for a ‘no-fly zone’ to protect civilians: “Syrians have been desperately appealing for a no-fly zone, at least over areas crammed with millions of civilians. Similarly, there is no safe zone in Ukraine, as long as the Russian fighter jets and missiles dominate its sky. Lviv [in far western Ukraine] has been attacked several times. In other words, without a no-fly zone, victims were left helpless at the mercy of perpetrators.”
‘On the frontlines’
Dr. Alkarim says that he would like to see more opportunities for international humanitarian workers to help directly on the frontlines in Ukraine, and share their resources and experiences with their Ukrainian peers:
“Despite their unique expertise in responding to complex crises, many medical specialists who arrived in western Ukraine failed to access hospitals close to or on the frontlines. Safety considerations played a key role, no doubt. However, we cannot ignore the security perspectives, and consequently, the rigorous control of the Ukrainian authorities.”
“The unprecedented mobilisation of international humanitarian, medical, and technical experts in and around Ukraine should be seen as a rare opportunity that the Ukrainian government must take. Strategic and long-term partnerships with international humanitarian and academic institutions can play a crucial role in the response efforts in both the short and long run,” he adds.
Another pressing horror of this invasion that will require further cooperation is clearing landmines and other unexploded or abandoned ammunition. In just the first five weeks, approximately 300,000 km² of Ukraine was contaminated by explosive devices, according to the Deputy Interior Minister.
“Unexploded landmines threaten not only Ukrainians, but millions across the globe. They prevent displaced people from returning, obstruct economic activities, and hinder recovery. Similar to other countries such as Mozambique, Iraq, and now Syria, it will take Ukraine years, if not decades to address this lethal threat.”
Dr. Alkarim urges a multilayered approach while responding to the short-term and long-term needs in Ukraine.
“The humanitarian needs vary across time and locations in Ukraine, and we should design our response plans accordingly. We must meet the urgent needs of vulnerable populations in Ukraine, but we learned from other armed conflicts that their devastations last longer.”
“Therefore, in parallel with the symptomatic remedy, it is crucial to address the root causes of armed conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes in the first place. I cannot emphasise enough: prevention is better than cure.”
Image: Protesters in Berlin mark 11th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution. The protesters shouted freedom for Ukraine, Slava Ukraini, and held signs up with One tragedy, one criminal. © Sipa USA/ Alamy Stock Photo