This is a message of solidarity with Ukraine from Raed Al Saleh, the head of The White Helmets humanitarian volunteers. Today, on the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, it drives home why a democratic Syria – free from dictatorship and tyranny – is part of a global cause that must prevail.
As Ukrainians come under brutal attack by Putin, it is chilling to see Russia using the same strategy and playbook in Ukraine as they use in Syria – attacking fleeing civilians, controlling humanitarian corridors, bombing hospitals and spreading disinformation.
Our volunteer first responders have saved more than 125,000 civilian lives in Syria since 2014, many from direct Russian attacks, and it’s heartbreaking to witness the same tragedies being repeated over and over again. We know the scale of horror that Russian bombings can inflict: no one and nothing is off limits.
In Syria, a concerted Russian disinformation campaign spreads fabricated claims attacking White Helmets volunteers to cover up war crimes. Now Russia is using the same methods to legitimize its attack on the Ukrainian people – using social media to sow doubt about atrocities committed against civilians.
When I saw the aftermath of Russian airstrikes on the maternity hospital in Mariupol last week, including Russia’s immediate disinformation efforts online, it was as if history was repeating itself.
We have witnessed these same horrific scenes and lies during attacks on Syrian hospitals. It angers me to see companies such as Twitter continue to allow accounts to spread falsehoods – and I urge you to join me in calling on Twitter to shut down all accounts, including Russian government accounts, being used to spread harmful disinformation.
A few days ago I spoke to the Washington Post and shared what we have learnt from our experience in case it can be of any help to our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. I told them that the GoPro camera is the best way to fight Russian disinformation and report the reality on the ground.
I also warned against sharing GPS locations of medical facilities with the United Nations. In Syria the Russians used that information to target hospitals. Ukrainians should also establish small medical and civil defense outposts in secret locations around the city to take the pressure off larger hospitals and mitigate the risk of targeting first responders.
There is no doubt Putin has been emboldened by the impunity he enjoyed in Syria. If Putin is not held accountable for his invasion of Ukraine the whole story will repeat itself again.
Today, we need actions not words from the international community. They must pursue justice relentlessly so no dictator can feel able to shamelessly commit such atrocities.
For the last seven years, the Syrian people have stood up to Russia and have yet to be defeated – so we believe Ukrainians can do so as well. At the end of the day, it is the will of the citizens that is the strongest weapon, even against the mightiest militaries in the world.
Raed Al Saleh