Before Mariupol, there was Douma: How Russia’s tactics of targeting civilians were transplanted from Syria to Ukraine
The city of Douma, located in Eastern Ghouta, is distinguished by its important strategic location, about 14 kilometers from the Syrian capital, Damascus. Douma was one of the first cities to break out of the Syrian regime’s control following the uprising in 2011. For quite a while, it was an example of defiance and resistance to the regime’s policies of forced displacement and demographic change policy.
After the opposition took control of Douma in October 2012, the Syrian regime forces imposed a suffocating siege. The city was subjected to continuous, relentless aerial and ground bombardment. The Syrian regime forces and its allies committed many massacres, some of which used internationally banned weapons, leading to thousands of deaths and injuries of civilians. The heavy bombardment razed civilian infrastructure, homes and, particularly, schools, hospitals and other medical facilities.
On February 18, 2018, the Syrian regime forces launched an intense military campaign on Eastern Ghouta, with significant support from its Russian ally, both in military attacks and, in parallel, at the negotiating table. This bloody campaign resulted in the killing of some 1,630 civilians, including at least 330 children, and the expulsion of more than 105 thousand civilians from Ghouta.
Douma’s legendary steadfastness could not endure the suffocating siege perpetrated by the Syrian regime and Russian forces. Ultimately, a civilian negotiating committee representing the people of Douma announced that a displacement agreement had been reached between Russia and the opposition faction Jaish al-Islam on April 8, 2018.
The agreement stipulated the departure of Jaysh al-Islam fighters and their families and civilians who wished to join them to the north of Syria, while the city would be entered by the Russian forces, instead of the Syrian regime on April 16, 2018, effectively placing the whole of Eastern Ghouta under regime’s control for the first time, seven years after the start of the conflict in Syria.
Only a day after the agreement was supposed to come into force a military attack was carried out with chemical weapons. As a result, at least 78 civilians were killed most of them children and women, and hundreds were injured. The chemical attack came days after the killing of 47 civilians, during a massive bombardment campaign of some 250 air raids, at a rate of three missiles per raid, launched by the Russian Air Force on civilian gatherings in residential neighborhoods and markets, conducted simultaneously with a ground attack to storm the city from the western and northern directions.
The siege and attacks on Douma constitute one of the largest breaches of humanitarian law, with more than 130,000 civilians, most of them children and women, trapped under the daily bombing, artillery and rocket fire from the ground and Russian and regime jets. The city starved, the besieging forces cutting off the supply of humanitarian aid including foodstuffs and children’s requirements, medical supplies, and ambulance equipment.
Scorched earth policy at the negotiating table
In Douma, Russia played a prominent role in the forced displacement of civilians, making it clear that this is its strategic goal pursued through the scorched-earth policy which forced the civilians who survived to leave their homes, according to a former member of the Civil Negotiating Committee of Duma, with whom we spoke to under the strict condition of anonymity: “Because of the conditions of the siege, which was imposed on Ghouta for years, the towns could not withstand this severe attack, so they collapsed one after the other, and whenever a town or city fell in Ghouta, the frequency of the bombing and the number of raids on the rest of the towns and cities increased, to prevent anyone from having further resilience or even considering rejection of the displacement agreements at the negotiating table.”
This is how he described the negotiating process: “The Civil Committee with the military representatives of Jaysh al-Islam attended the first negotiating session at the beginning of the fourth week of March 2018.
We went out to the outskirts of Douma, near the Wafideen camp checkpoint, and there we met a Russian officer named Alexander Zorin, who was accompanied by a Russian officer named Evgeny. It later turned out to be the executive arm of Zorin. In addition to an officer from the State Security Branch of the Syrian regime, Kenana Hawija as a representative of the Syrian regime, and a woman named Rana Zaqout as a representative of the Office of the United Nations Special Envoy also attended.
The speaker and session director throughout the session was Officer Zorin, and his demands were clear (he wants the opposition faction Jaysh al-Islam to hand over weapons and leave the city towards northern Syria, as is the case with the other Ghouta factions).
The meeting was repeated two days later, but Officer Zorin had a different tone this time. He demanded that the fighters leave with their families without any conditions and gave us 24 hours to respond. The intensity of the bombing dropped slightly during this period, which he gave, and with the end of the period and the failure to meet his request by the leaders of the Army of Islam, the bombing returned hysterically.
So, we asked for a new session, and indeed on the next day the request for the session was answered, and we went out under the heavy bombardment on the Al-Wafideen camp to meet them as usual. This time, Major General Muhammad Dib Zaitoun was part of the Syrian regime delegation, and the Russian officer had not arrived.
The speaker was Hawija and her words were less severe and showed that the Syrian regime and its forces want a peaceful solution and that the solution must be between the Syrian parties and that they do not want to expulsion civilians from their homes and will work to settle the situation of those who want to stay, but the end of the decision is not ours, so we must go back and discuss the proposals with the leaders of Jaysh al-Islam.
On the following day, the civil activists in Douma met with the leaders of the Jaysh al-Islam faction to present what was put forward in the meeting and to inform them of the deteriorating medical reality of the shortage of medicines and medical supplies, and the inability of people to withstand more, due to the scarcity of food and the necessities of life. A day later, the Russian officer, Zorin, told us that we had until ten in the evening to give him a reply that the fighters would leave with their families or else, they will flatten the city.”
The negotiator from the Civil Committee stated that he left with the first of the convoys that were forcibly displaced from the city, but he remained following the course of events there:
“I was following up on how the agreement went and implemented with my friends who stayed there. Five days after my leaving, the bombing resumed in a hysterical, continuous manner since the start of the last campaign on Ghouta.
The bombardment continued for about 36 continuous hours and never stopped, the last of which was an aerial bombardment of the surroundings of Douma Hospital with chemical weapons on April 7, 2018. At that time, pressures increased on the leadership of the Jaysh al-Islam faction, which eventually forced it to sign an agreement on the day after the strike with the Russian side, stipulating their exit to northern Syria.”
Can you summarize the Russian role in Eastern Ghouta and Duma in particular?
“While I was on the negotiating committee, the dominant Russian role in the control of the Syrian decision emerged. The negotiation session was always led by the Russian officer Alexander Zorin, who was the one who asked and commanded and representatives of the Syrian regime was not talking and were only listeners.
It is worth noting that, in one of the negotiating sessions, the bombardment was at its height and Zorin was very angry because members of Jaysh al-Islam had captured new points from the regime forces between Douma and Mesraba.
The representative of Jaysh al-Islam said: “If you want us to withdraw, stop the bombing.”
I remember at the time that the sounds of the bombing were from the Russian Grad missile launchers. Indeed, Zorin spoke in Russian through his radio, and immediately, at the same moment, the bombing stopped.
At the beginning of one of the negotiating sessions, he was talking arrogantly and angry, that the area of the Russian Federation is about 17 million square kilometers, so who is the opposition Jaysh al-Islam faction (and the Ghouta militants, as he described it) to stand up to him and the Russian force.”
Unheard echoes of Douma in Mariupol
Today, as the world is witnessing another brutal war waged by Russia, this time against Ukraine, the displaced Syrians, who witnessed and lived this brutality at the hands of the same killing machine, are reliving their memories. What Russia has done in Syria, in places like Douma, reveals the scenario it has for Ukraine. The same tactics we have seen in Douma, tactics of massive, indiscriminate destruction of civilian areas that makes survival impossible for hundreds of thousands who are then forced to leave through the so called “humanitarian corridors”, we are today witnessing in cities like Mariupol.
The disinformation strategy and tactics are also the same. Just as it branded all Syrians who opposed the Assad regime as terrorists, in Ukraine Russia is branding all Ukrainians who resist its invasion as Nazis. Such dehumanization is designed to make Ukrainian lives worthless, just as it made Syrian lives worthless in the eyes of the majority of policy makers in the international community. Such dehumanization also serves to justify blatant, criminal breaches of laws of war and international humanitarian law committed by Russia, under the pretext that everything is allowed against terrorists, or Nazis.
Forced displacement strategy is also the same. Today we can clearly see that Russia’s goal in Syria was to implement the vision of “useful Syria” where more than half of the population was displaced in ways identical to those who have seen more than three million Ukrainians displaced already. The human cost of such policy is of no concern to Russian regime, what it aims to achieve is to create waves of displaced people desperately trying to reach safety of Europe, thus weakening its stability, especially in the atmosphere of xenophobia and hatred of refugees stoked by Russian proxies in Europe such as Viktor Orban, Marie le Penn and others.
As a result, the possibility of the return of the forcibly displaced people under Russian control, both in Syria and Ukraine, even where there is no direct military threat, is non-existent as the forces who carried out the displacement in the most brutal of ways remain in charge, with the perpetrators of most heinous crimes in the positions of ultimate power. It is indicative that no Western politician is today advocating that Ukrainians should be preparing to return to areas of Ukraine under Russian control. It would be shocking to hear anyone suggest that they should be considering return to Mariupol should it completely fall into Russian hands. Yet, this is what Syrians are being increasingly pressured into doing. Syrians are still being treated as people whose humanity has been completely stripped by Russian crimes and dehumanization, and never restored in the eyes of rest of the world. Treating Russia as some sort of a guarantor of security in Syria, instead as the aggressor and perpetrator of worst crimes, just as it is being treated for crimes in Ukraine, is a clear testament to this double standard. The story of Douma, whose echoes we are seeing in Mariupol these days, serves to remind us of this harsh reality.