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Opinion A Syrian rebel commander’s advice to Ukrainians on how to fight Russian invaders

Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, left, visits an air base in Syria on Feb. 15. (Reuters)

Ukrainians have joined a gruesome but not-so-exclusive club — victims of unprovoked Russian military attacks and reported war crimes. The Syrian opposition, which has been attacked by Russian forces for almost seven years, has some advice for Ukrainians on surviving Russian military assaults and fighting invading Russian soldiers. They say that each day Ukrainians resist Russian aggression and fight for their homeland is a victory against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Syrian opposition is standing in solidarity with Ukrainians, as it did in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. After Putin took his first chunk of Ukraine by force when he invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, he deployed the Russian military to help the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah kill civilians rallying for freedom and democracy in Syria. As the West stood by, Russia began a brutal campaign of reported war crimes and targeting civilians for cruel death that is still ongoing today.

Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, a former colonel in Assad’s army who defected in 2012 and joined the opposition, has been fighting Russian invaders for seven years and studying their tactics. He was the commander of the Revolutionary Military Council and a general in the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo while Russia, Assad and Iran carpet-bombed the city and starved its people. I asked him what advice he has for Ukrainians trying to repel invading Russian troops.

“First of all, I want to say that it is not advice that our Ukrainian brothers and sisters need from us; it is support from the West,” he told me. “But to begin my advice, I would say to not rely on the international community, to not rely on the United States, because they gave Putin a blank check and an open hand in Syria.”

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The international community has earned its distrust among Syrians. Despite years of reports compiling evidence that the Russian military and Russian mercenary contractors were working with Assad to commit war crimes against Syrian civilians, there has been no accountability for Putin or his generals. Their alliance is very relevant today in Ukraine.

Assad was the first world leader to celebrate Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last week. Syrian opposition sources tell me that Russia is now recruiting Syrians to come fight for them in Ukraine, as they did already in Libya. As it turns out, what happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria. Russia used Syria as a training ground for the Ukraine war, testing more than 300 different weapons in Syria since 2015, according to the Russian government.

“It has been seven years of intense training with live ammunition, live weapons, live airplanes against live targets, including children,” he said. “The U.S. and Europe allowed Russia to kill unabated in Syria with every sort of weapon, and the world is now paying the price for that in Ukraine.”

Already in Ukraine, there are credible allegations of the Russian military targeting hospitals with internationally banned weapons such as cluster bombs. When Putin can’t achieve his military goals with conventional forces, there is no weapon, even chemical weapons, that he will not use on innocent civilians, Akaidi said. Putin will do anything to break the will of the people.

But Ukrainians should know they have a distinct advantage, he said, because they are fighting for something dear to them — their homes and families. The Russian soldiers have no morale because they have no real motivation. Ukrainians also know their land better and can use that knowledge to outmaneuver the Russian forces.

“The Russian invaders, with as many weapons and numbers they have over you, are still cowards,” he said. “And they are still fighting on land that is not theirs. The land fights alongside you. Remember that.”

Akaidi said the most effective way to repel advancing Russian forces is to widely deploy Stinger antiaircraft missiles, as well as antitank and anti-armor systems. The Stingers are the most important, because Russian pilots will avoid any area where they see Stingers being used effectively.

“When you take down a couple of planes in a specific place, you know you can operate more freely in that place, because they are afraid to fly over it, and that’s a really key thing,” he said.

The United States and Europe have provided Ukraine with some Stingers, Javelin antitank systems and other weaponry, and more are on the way.

“Stingers are a huge blessing — rely on these. Because these are air-defense systems that scare the hell out of the Russians,” Akaidi said.

Ukrainians should also be confident because they have several things the Syrian opposition never had, including a well-trained and well-equipped fighting force led by a democratic government and a strong democratic leader in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“You have a courageous and brave president. You have a courageous and brave leadership. Band around them,” Akaidi said.

Even without these advantages, Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo held out for years under brutal assault and siege against Russia, Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and the Islamic State. Each day of resistance puts more pressure on Putin, because he must think about his economy and his domestic unrest as Russian soldiers come home in body bags.

Winning against Russia sometimes means simply continuing the resistance against them and making Putin pay a higher price for his aggression, by fighting and surviving each day, Akaidi said.

“Just know that you are more powerful than people think,” Akaidi wants to tell the Ukrainians. “Band together and fight them as long as you can. ... We believe in you. We are praying for you to last.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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