Ukraine and Syria – Two Mayors, the Passion, and the Parallels

Mayor Mohamed Khairullah

Recently, Mayor Paul Kanitra of Point Pleasant Beach visited the Polish-Ukraine border to help with humanitarian relief, and later organized a charity concert, making headlines.  In northern New Jersey, another mayor has been undertaking similar efforts for years in his home country of Syria, seeing parallels that strike close to home between the experience of Syrians victimized by Putin and the invasion of Ukraine.

Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah of the borough of Prospect Park in Passaic County may have felt a dreadful sense of déjà vu watching the news when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.  For Khairullah, the attack did not come as a surprise, but he was crushed that the world had not stood up to Vladimir Putin sooner, when Syria was being bombed and attacked by Russian forces in support of President Bashar al-Assad, the Ba’athist strongman who had ruled over his country, similarly to Putin, since 2000.

In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine.  Crimea is home to an ethnic majority of Russians who dwell on a rugged and harsh peninsula.  Before Khrushchev, the territory had been part of the Russian SSR, but the Premier transferred ownership to the Ukraine SSR in 1954.  Putin, seeking to reassert Russian dominion again, rolled in, captured the territory, and while there was some international outcry, little happened.



In September of 2015, Putin intervened on behalf of Assad, who was fighting the Syrian Civil War that pitted myriad factions against one another.  With Russian help, the anti-government held city of Aleppo was taken with brutal force, marking a significant turn in securing Assad’s power over the remains of Syria.  Two years later, reports came out of possible chemical weapons use in Syria.  All the while, millions of Syrians fled their homeland to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or further abroad to Europe.

Mayor Khairullah, whose mantra is “think globally, act locally”, did not sit by as this was happening and had arranged for humanitarian aid, traveling to the Middle East several times to help.  He gained national attention in 2019 when he was held up for hours with his family, harassed by border authorities at Kennedy Airport, and had his cell phone taken after returning from Turkey.

Three years later, with the invasion of Ukraine, Khairullah was invited to speak at an interfaith prayer vigil in his neighboring town of Hawthorne.  At the pulpit, Khairullah condemned the Russian aggression and said that the world’s failure to act against Putin in Syria emboldened him to make his move against Ukraine.  He called upon the people to pressure their elected officials to do more, and echoed President Zelensky’s call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an option that NATO has flatly ruled out for the time being.

“I’ve seen the suffering of the people of Syria due to the Russian bombardment. So, I could relate to what might be going on.”  Khairullah described Putin’s Russia to Insider NJ as “a brutal regime, hell-bent on expanding their empire.”

The mayor said he saw parallels between Ukraine and Syria.  “Starting with the Russian scorched earth policy that they’ve utilized in Syria, and now they utilize it in Ukraine through the use of illegal weapons, such as cluster bombs, the targeting of infrastructure such as hospitals, schools.  That is all done by designed by Russia.  It’s not something new to them, they’ve done it in Syria, and now they’re using it because it causes fear and panic amongst the general public.”

By specifically targeting the civilian population, Khairullah said it struck personally.  “The bottom line for any father or mother, any caretaker, is the safety of the people they take care of.  When you have nothing but bombs and fire raining down on you, the natural thing for a person who’s supposed to protect their family is to take them away from danger.  Then comes the propaganda that they’re only targeting hostile targets or terrorists.”

As much as every war is a war of bullets and bombs, there is also the war for the narrative.  The messaging and control of perception is critical in shaping the framework of conflict.  In this battlefield, the truth is the first casualty of war.  “I remember.  Anything that does not agree with them, they’ll call a terrorist,” Khairullah told Insider NJ.  “I remember going inside Syria, and the Assad regime had a propaganda piece that called me a terrorist, when, in fact, what I’m doing is going inside to provide food, medicine, and fuel. That’s the media propaganda that they have.”

Every day the news reports hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children fleeing the country.  Ceasefires, often breached, have been shakily set up in certain cities to allow corridors of refugees to leave.  Frequently these corridors have been violated by Russian forces.  These echo the streams of Syrians who had to risk their lives to escape war at home.  “We’re very sad for all these lives lost and for the people who are in constant fear now, for those who have to flee in the elements,” Khairullah said.  “I’ve lost a cousin as he was fleeing.  He passed away trying to cross the border.  So I can imagine similar situations are happening now.  I’ve seen people cross borders, I’ve been on the border between Syria and Turkey and I’ve seen the struggle. When you talk about old ladies or young children trying to crawl through rough terrains, it’s not easy. Sometimes they get targeted by border guards, which we understand that countries have to defend themselves, but now you have innocent people who have nothing.  At that point it is between what type of death is going to happen to them.  So sometimes they take a risk knowing that they might die.  But at least they feel like they’re fleeing with the hope of not dying in another way somewhere else.”

Syria, according to Khairullah, was Putin’s preamble to Ukraine and the writing was on the wall for those who were willing to look closely enough at it.  “I think Putin tested the waters in Syria, and they were in Syria for at least nine out of the 11 years of the uprising against the Assad regime.  They use illegal weapons, they’ve targeted hospitals, they’ve targeted schools, they’ve killed thousands of Syrians with no repercussions. What would make him feel that he can’t do the same in Ukraine, which is a lot closer to him?  If he was allowed to travel across multiple countries, and kill the desire of the Syrian people to obtain their freedom, why can’t he?  In his mind, he thinks that he could take Ukraine.  Why not?  He has this desire to create his empire or reestablish the Soviet Union or whatever is going on in his head. No one has put a brake on it, and he is not going to stop.  We always talk about, ‘what if we did this? What if we did that?’  Like in the past, no one stopped Hitler and look how far he went?”

Khairullah warned that other countries may be at risk from Putin’s aggression, blaming the global community for its lack of effective response years ago and giving the Russian president carte-blanche.  “I think allowing him to do what he did in Syria 100% resulted in what happened in Ukraine.”

As President Zelensky continues to call for more military aid, support, and a no-fly zone, Khairullah found plenty of parallels to the calls in Syria which largely went unanswered.  “It was eerily similar to the demands of the Syrian people early on in the revolution when I heard the Ukrainian lady [in Hawthorne] speaking about covering the sky and letting us have a leg to stand on when it comes to our fight against Putin.   This is exactly what we asked for in Syria: a no-fly zone.  Allow us to fight on the ground man to man so the people have the ability to gain their freedom.  What he’s doing is the scorched earth policy through his air force that kills all defense systems and allows for his troops to advance forward and take over a sovereign nation. He did it in Syria against people who were fighting for their freedom and now he’s doing it in Ukraine.”

Although Khairullah is a Democrat, like President Biden, he did not spare former President Obama from criticism over the American lack of action on Syria.  “I have no problem when it comes to human life to say what is right.  I think Obama was wrong for not stopping Putin and for not sticking to his ‘red lines’.”  As for former President Trump, Khairullah was unsure whether Putin would have been held back from his invasion by Trump given their relationship, or if Trump would have let Putin act as he pleased in Ukraine.  “Trump was Trump.  You never know.  That’s what was unique about Trump.  He was in the headlines every single day, because he just didn’t know what direction he might go.”

Khairullah said the situation was “not complicated” but that American elected officials were unwilling to “do the right thing” regardless.  “That makes them complicit in what happened in Syria and what’s happening to the Ukrainian people.”

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