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UKRAINE: The Syria Playbook Redux

‘Playbook. A book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football.’  Yes, the playbook for Syria is now being used for Ukraine. But is it Russia’s or America’s?

Peter Ford
21st Century Wire

The Russians in attacking Ukraine are taking leaves out of their Syrian playbook, so we are being constantly told. But the American origin of this term gives us a clue as to what is really going on.   

The chemical weapons play

One of the plays being used is apparently the brandishing of chemical weapons. It’s important to recall what actually happened in Syria in this regard.

The first alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria occurred in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in 2013. After a vote in the British Parliament scuppered a Western plan to bomb Syria in retaliation, the Russians, not the West, took active steps to remove Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons, shepherding Syria through a process of dismantling all its stocks under international supervision and verification (compare and contrast US research collaboration with Ukraine in biolabs so sensitive that records had to be destroyed before the Russians arrived).

Claims nevertheless continued to be made, never verified in situ by independent parties, that Syria was using chemical weapons.

In April 2018 reports emerged from Douma on the outskirts of Damascus that Syria had used chlorine gas in a particularly egregious attack on civilians. Without waiting even the 48 hours needed for international inspectors to arrive, the US, UK and France launched punitive bombing raids on Syria. Subsequently, inspectors found evidence at the scene consistent with a false flag operation. That evidence was doctored at headquarters in The Hague under intense pressure from the US and UK. The real lesson from the incident – that fraudsters were at work – was thus never learned and a spurious version of the truth prevailed.

What really happened, many experts believe, was that jihadi groups affiliated with Al Qaida yet supported by Western powers fabricated the incident (it wasn’t difficult with Western intelligence agencies and gullible Western media eager to pin blame on Assad) in order to provide a pretext for the West to enter the war and turn back the tide against Assad.

These are but two among other similar incidences talking place over the course of the conflict. 

Rewriting history

Scroll forward four years. Russia, we are being repeatedly told, is preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine while pre-emptively covering itself by predicting use of a false flag.

In Syria, Assad was winning and had no need to use chemical weapons. It would have been crazy to do so, when it was the only thing that could make the West bomb him. In Ukraine, Putin similarly has no need to do the one thing which would likely lead to direct NATO intervention. No matter, the authorised version of the history of the Syrian conflict holds that abetted by Russia, Syria used chemical weapons, and so today Russia must be poised to do the same in Ukraine.

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‘History is written by the victors’, Churchill is supposed to have said. With Syria, given the West’s control of the narrative via its monopoly hold over international media, history is written by the losers.

Constant parallels are being drawn with Syria in the Ukraine context. But they are the wrong parallels, and the wrong lessons are being drawn from the Syrian ordeal.

The Russian version of the playbook, according to the West

According to the Western narrative, enunciated by officials and echoed by reporters who seem to see it as their job to act like government press officers or cheerleaders, the Russian playbook in Syria is now being applied wholesale to Ukraine. Its chapters comprise of indiscriminate shelling, carpet bombing of cities, targeting of civilians in their homes, hospitals, schools and shelters, sieges of major towns, prevention of civilians from leaving through humanitarian corridors, commission of many other brutal war crimes, and using false flag accusations.

This indeed is how the Western media portrayed the Syrian conflict and are now doing the same for Ukrainian conflict. But the picture presented distorts some key facts and obscures others.


It almost totally airbrushes out the jihadist opposition to Assad, just as the Ukrainian Nazis are being airbrushed out of the picture in Ukraine. The Syrian jihadists used human shields as a consistent strategy. ‘Collateral damage’, an Americanism we learnt to use in America’s war on Vietnam, becomes inevitable under such circumstances. Countless civilians died as US-led forces levelled most of Raqqa before driving ISIS out of it. Dead bodies were still being retrieved from the rubble of Raqqa two years later. Is this the playbook we are talking about here, the one the Coalition used against ISIS?

The same techniques of using human shields deployed  by jihadists are now being used in Ukraine. How many people are aware that Mariupol, where this is happening most, is where the extreme nationalist Azov brigade have barracks, and that they have reportedly been firing from civilian buildings and preventing civilians from leaving?

Similarly, who knew that jihadists in East Aleppo were constantly shelling civilian areas in government-held Western Aleppo? Or that the amount of destruction in Aleppo was nothing like what was is being assumed, or that the ‘genocide’ (that other overworked term) of a quarter of a million foretold by the professional hysterics of the UN for East Aleppo turned into the bussing out of a few thousand fighters, who surrendered and were taken with their families to other jihadi-controlled areas?

If anything, the lesson from Syria was that the Russians sometimes showed more restraint than their hosts. Russia forced the Syrian government, eager to recover East Aleppo, to delay operations while abortive parleys took place and the jihadists won more time to entrench their positions. Russia also forced the Syrian government to accept indulgent terms for the surrender of jihadists in the South, allowing fighters to keep small arms and creating no-go areas for government forces. Those familiar with these facts will not be surprised to learn that according to the UN civilian deaths in Ukraine so far are numbered in hundreds rather than the many thousands claimed by propagandists.

The Western playbook

None of this is to condone all Russian actions, but in order to avoid repeating in Ukraine the mistakes the West made in Syria – it is important to see things as they really are. And in the Western playbook there were many mistakes.

The worst was to supply jihadist groups with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of arms and equipment, which only served to inflame the situation, abet terrorism and prolong Syria’s agony. How much of the arms now being funnelled into Ukraine will end up in the Nazi battalions and later in the Middle East? Will the arms really hasten the end of violence or prolong it?

A second leaf from the Western playbook for Syria now being used in spades a propos of Ukraine is sanctions. Cruel, far-reaching sanctions in Syria have totally failed in their stated aim of ‘changing Assad’s behaviour’ (our wicked adversaries have ‘behaviour’, our virtuous selves have ‘policies’) while immiserating the Syrian people. Sanctions on Russia are plainly doing more harm to the world economy than they are to Russia, and cannot possibly change Russia’s ‘behaviour’ in the short term. And is ‘crippling Russia’, with its echoes of German reparations post World War I, anyway really such a great idea?

That other favourite staple of the US playbook, regime change, as attempted with Syria – after stellar accomplishments  in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, was precisely what brought about today’s crisis in Ukraine, for it was the US-backed removal of an elected President of Ukraine in 2014 which precipitated the chain of events leading to the present conflict.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Maidan Coup – “Ukraine On Fire” with Oliver Stone

The Western playbook provides that foreign leaders who refuse to bend the knee should always be portrayed as crazed and brutal. They always need arraigning before an International Criminal Court, the jurisdiction of which the US denies for itself, to the extent of sanctioning a prosecutor who dares to pursue a US client state. This personalisation and demonisation obviates any risk that policy makers might have to face up to the reality that other countries have legitimate concerns too. In the court of Western public opinion the Great Powers have ensured a hanging jury for Assad, and now Putin.

The page in the US playbook to which administrations are most attached, however, the gift which keeps on giving, is the accusation against target nations that they are using or planning to use chemical weapons. Has the world forgotten the non-existent Iraqi WMD? The watertight intelligence? The 45 minutes for rockets to reach British bases in Cyprus? How the US can have recourse to a similar ploy today, claiming Russia is planning something nefarious, without being hooted at in derision is merely testimony to the extent to which mainstream media has prostrated itself before power. The most far-fetched claims can be made without a shred of media scrutiny.

That US Secretary of State Antony Blinken could repeatedly make the ‘chemical weapons’ claim is deeply disturbing.

If this is not the US laying the groundwork for a fake flag incident involving chemical weapons, or perhaps the bioweapons the US is accused of developing in Ukraine, it certainly looks like it.

If that is the case it is no longer playbooks we may be dealing with, it’s the Book of Lamentations.

Author Peter Ford is a global affairs analyst, and the former British Ambassador to Syria (2003-2006) and Bahrain (1999-2002).

READ MORE UKRAINE NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Ukraine Files


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