Was Putin's playbook for Ukraine written in Syria?

Eyewitnesses to Syrian atrocities fear for Ukraine because they know what Putin is capable of

As Russian missiles bombard Ukrainian cities and the U.S. secretary of state has called Russia's actions in Ukraine "war crimes," an eyewitness to crimes against humanity in Syria says he fears for the Ukrainian people because he knows what the Russian president is capable of. He saw it in his own country. 

"I see the news coming out of Ukraine, my heart hurts because I know what Russia has done in Ukraine — what it can do — because I know what it's done in Syria," said one Syrian eyewitness, who spoke with CBS News' investigative unit in his first U.S. television interview. 

The eyewitness' account is echoed by Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes. Rapp told CBS News that Russian President Vladimir Putin crafted his Ukraine playbook years ago in Syria, when his longtime ally President Bashar Al-Assad cracked down on the pro-democracy movement. More than 250,000 civilians have died in the more than decadelong, brutal Syrian civil war that followed the Arab Spring movement in 2011. 

"When it looked like Assad was going to be overthrown by his own people, the Russians came all in and joined in the bombardment of hospitals and civilian neighborhoods," Rapp said. 

With Russia's support, Assad remains in power amid allegations of widespread crimes against humanity

"We have to recognize the critical role that Russia played in the crimes committed by the Assad regime and crimes, so horrendous that the UN stopped counting the dead at 400,000 years ago," Rapp said. 

Earlier this month on Capitol Hill, the Syrian eyewitness, known only as "the Gravedigger" to protect his identity because of ongoing security threats to him and his family, shared his first-hand account of two mass graves in Syria. 

"Twice a week, multiple trailer trucks would come and each truck would have upwards of 100 to 400 or more bodies," he said. "They were tortured to death, you could see clearly the signs of torture on their bodies. … This was a systematic machinery of death." 

He pointed CBS News to a site near the Syrian capital called Al Qutayfah, where satellite images show its transformation from a barren field to a series of trenches. 

"Everything that was going on, the mass graves, were systematic and were part of what the Assad regime wanted to do," he said. 

In a landmark decision in January, a German court found a former Syrian colonel, Anwar Raslan, guilty of crimes against humanity, based on the Gravedigger's account and other evidence.

Syrian refugee Omar Al-Shogre thought he would never make it out of jail alive. Showing a cigarette burn on his fingers, Shogre described the physical and emotional torture he endured during his three years in Syrian detention. 

He said the regime kept meticulous records of the prisoners who died around him. 

"I numbered hundreds of bodies, if not thousands of bodies," he told CBS News. "This human part of you disappears in order for you to survive." 

Several Americans have disappeared in Syria, including journalist Austin Tice, humanitarian aid worker Layla Shweikani and psychologist Majd Kamalmaz

Shogre, now a student at Georgetown University, said he still fears for his life. 

"We talked to the FBI, we talked to other, you know, war crimes committees in different countries because I expect myself to be killed at any day," he said. 

Seven years after his mother helped him escape from Syria, Shogre is now an advocate for human rights. Last month, he reunited with his sister, showing that it's possible to thread the needle of despair and stitch together hope and purpose. 

"I can cry for 100,000 years for what I went through. It won't even be enough, right? But I am going to tell everyone to tell the story of the Syrian people through me," Shogre said. "What is the benefit of your power, if you don't use it for good?" 

While the evidence is overwhelming, the Syrian president has repeatedly denied crimes against his own people. 

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia's attacks on civilians in Ukraine are war crimes. Putin's spokesman has "categorically rejected" the war crimes allegation, in a move that also follows the playbook from Syria. 

"You could kill your way out of it," Rapp, the former ambassador, said. "And that's the lesson that Russia has taken to heart too as it commits these crimes in Ukraine." 


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