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General Alexander Dvornikov, in dress uniform and white gloves, salutes during a military parade
Observers say Dvornikov is no different than other Russian generals and will also face a very different enemy in Ukraine Image: Erik Romanenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance
PoliticsSyria

Is new Russian commander really 'bloody'?

Cathrin Schaer | Emad Hassan
April 12, 2022

The new head of Russian forces in Ukraine, General Alexander Dvornikov, is nicknamed the "Butcher of Syria" for indiscriminately bombing civilians there. But military analysts argue that he may not even be that special.

https://p.dw.com/p/49qKO

They call him the "Butcher of Syria." But in fact, military analysts have argued the Russian general who was recently appointed to lead all Russian military efforts in Ukraine, is not particularly different from any of the other Russian commanders who worked in Syria. That includes those now in Ukraine.

General Alexander Dvornikov, a 60-year-old career soldier, was the first senior commander stationed in Syria after Russia began supporting that country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Dvornikov was there for 10 months, between September 2015 and July 2016.

By then, the 2011 Syrian revolution against the Assad family's decades of authoritarian rule had devolved into a brutal civil war. In the summer of 2015 the Assad regime called for support from Russia and in September 2015 Russia entered the fray.

Over the following year, ruthless bombing of civilian areas by Russian jets, especially in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, is widely considered to have turned the tide of the civil war in Assad's favor.

Mosques, markets, schools, hospitals and even farms and bread lines were targeted by Russian planes. Syrian opposition fighters, who previously had some success against their own government's army, had very few anti-aircraft missiles and no way of fighting back.

The Syrian campaign was considered a success in Russia. And it is for this that Dvornikov got his nickname and one of Russia's highest honors — in 2016, he was named "Hero of the Russian Federation" for his efforts in Syria.

A member of Syrian opposition Mujahideen brigades runs away from a home-made rocket about to be launched in the regime-controlled Dahiyet el Esed region in Aleppo.
Syrian rebels made their own missiles and were never as well armed as the UkrainiansImage: Abdulfetah Huseyin/AA/picture alliance

Standard behavior

None of this notoriety, however, is necessarily deserved.

Dvornikov's behavior in Syria was not unusual, according to a briefing published this week by researchers at the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War, or ISW.

"Russian forces targeted Syrian civilians and critical infrastructure throughout the Russian intervention in Syria," they wrote.

"Dvornikov's experience commanding the Russian deployment to Syria — and targeting of civilians during that deployment — was also not in itself unique or an indicator of a particular skill set," they added. "The tactics and approaches used … in both Syria and Ukraine are not unique. Neither are they particularly effective."

In fact, Dvornikov's "bloody" reputation is far from unusual among Russian military, Elias Hanna, a retired army commander formerly with the Lebanese military, said.

Hanna, who now lectures on strategy and geopolitics at the American University of Beirut, told DW the Russian army is well known for the use of excessive violence to achieve its military aims and that Dvornikov's behavior in Syria was the product of a long-established military culture. Dvornikov has been in the army since 1982 and is thought to have seen active duty in Chechnya. 

No more brutal than before

As it is, statistics also show that Dvornikov didn't open up a new and more violent chapter in the Syrian war either.

The Russians entered the war with their air force after September 2015 but there was already a "scorched earth" policy in action, thanks to the Assad government.

For example, between September 2014 and August 2015, the group Physicians for Humanity recorded 110 attacks on hospitals or medical facilities in Syria. Over the next year, after the Russians started to bomb, Physicians for Humanity counted exactly the same number of attacks on hospitals or medical facilities. The first medical facilities were bombed back in 2012. 

The Russians were responsible for more civilian deaths after 2015. But their efforts only added to the already-awful toll that the Assad regime had taken.

In 2016, almost 17,000 Syrian civilians were killed. Nearly a quarter of those deaths were attributable to the Russian military, the watchdog group Syrian Network for Human Rights said in annual reports. The group has been monitoring human rights violations in Syria since the conflict began.

Three Syrians try to rescue people trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building after the Russian army carried out airstrikes on the opposition-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo.
Ruthless Russian airstrikes were credited with bringing the city of Aleppo back under Syrian government control in 2016Image: Beha el Halebi/AA/picture alliance

But in 2014 and 2015, before the Russians ever entered the fight, 12,044 and 24,430 civilians were killed in Syria. The Syrian civil war was already extremely "bloody" before Dvornikov arrived.

Also worth noting: It was the Syrian government that used chemical weapons and barrel bombs indiscriminately on its own population. Both kinds of attacks amount to war crimes. Although there is no guarantee they wouldn't do this in Ukraine, the Russian military is not recorded as having carried out those kinds of attacks in Syria themselves.

They are, however, using unguided "dumb" bombs and missiles in Ukraine, which cannot be precisely targeted and usually lead to more civilian deaths. Russia also used them in Syria. 

A logical choice

Dvornikov's appointment to oversee Russian forces in Ukraine is far from sensational. It is a logical decision: He has been commander of Russia's southern military district since he left Syria in 2016. This district includes Donbas and Crimea, where Russia is apparently planning its new offensive.

Over the past month, his axis of operations in this war has seen the most progress of all the different fronts. Dvornikov has also been in charge of operations around the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Additionally, he is not only the longest-serving senior military man in southern Ukraine, he is also the most senior commander in the country at the moment.

Residents carry their belongings past buildings destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the southern port city of Mariupol.
General Dvornikov already controls the district in which the Ukrainian city of Mariupol is under siegeImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

Will the "butcher" win the war for Russia?

It is hard to know if Dvornikov's experience in Syria will make any difference in Ukraine, ISW observers said. The fact that he was the first Russian commander to serve there and had to set up coalition operations, including an air base, as well as his experience in urban warfare in Aleppo, might help, they noted.

Then again, the nature of the confrontation in Ukraine is very different. Ukraine has a wide array of anti-aircraft and other advanced munitions as well as its own air force.

"No appointment of any general can erase the fact that Russia has already faced a strategic failure in Ukraine," White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday of the Dvornikov appointment.

Russian forces are apparently demoralized and the army's logistics in disarray. The official death toll for Russians killed in Syria since 2015 is 112. But in Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are thought to have died in just six weeks of fighting.

"The nature of the confrontations in Syria depended on violent air strikes by the Russian army. General Dvornikov only led military operations in Syria by bombing from the air," retired general Hanna pointed out. "And the Russian infantry forces almost never had to confront anyone on the ground [in Syria]. But now there's a ground war, with fights between regular armies and professional soldiers, as well as air capacity."

Edited by: Jon Shelton

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