Recently, Mayor Paul Kanitra of Point Pleasant Beach traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help with humanitarian aid and then hosted a headline-grabbing charity concert. In northern New Jersey, another mayor has undertaken similar efforts for years in his home country of Syria, seeing parallels close to home between the experience of Putin’s victimized Syrians and the US invasion. ‘Ukraine.
Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah of the Borough of Prospect Park in Passaic County may have felt a terrible sense of deja vu watching the news when Russia invaded Ukraine February 24. For Khairullah, the attack came as no surprise, but he was crushed that the world had not stood up to Vladimir Putin sooner, as Syria was bombarded and attacked by Russian forces in support of President Bashar. al-Assad, the Baathist strongman who ruled his country, like Putin, since 2000.
In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Crimea is home to an ethnic majority of Russians who live on a rugged and harsh peninsula. Prior to Khrushchev, the territory was part of the Russian SSR, but the Prime Minister transferred ownership to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Putin, seeking to reassert Russian dominance once again, seized the territory, and although there was an international outcry, little happened.
In September 2015, Putin intervened on behalf of Assad, who was fighting the Syrian civil war that pitted myriad factions against each other. With help from Russia, the anti-government-held city of Aleppo was taken with brute force, marking an important turning point in securing Assad’s power over the remnants of Syria. Two years later there were reports of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. During all this time, millions of Syrians have fled their homeland to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or further afield to Europe.
Mayor Khairullah, whose mantra is “think globally, act locally”, did not sit idly by while this was happening and organized humanitarian aid, traveling to the Middle East several times to help. He came to national attention in 2019 when he was held for hours with his family, harassed by border officials at Kennedy Airport and had his mobile phone taken after returning from Turkey.
Three years later, with the invasion of Ukraine, Khairullah was asked to speak at an interfaith prayer vigil in his nearby town of Hawthorne. From the pulpit, Khairullah condemned Russian aggression and said the world’s failure to act against Putin in Syria encouraged him to act against Ukraine. He called on 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 which NATO has categorically excluded for the time being.
“I saw the suffering of the Syrian people because of the Russian bombardments. So I could identify with what might happen. Khairullah described Putin’s Russia to Insider NJ as “a brutal regime bent on expanding its empire.”
The mayor said he saw parallels between Ukraine and Syria. “Starting with the Russian scorched earth policy they used in Syria, and now they are using it in Ukraine through the use of illegal weapons, such as cluster bombs, targeting infrastructure such as hospitals, schools. All of this is made by designed by Russia. It’s not something new for them, they made it in Syria, and now they use it because it causes fear and panic among the general public.
By specifically targeting the civilian population, Khairullah said he struck personally. “The main thing for any father or mother, any caretaker, is the safety of the people he cares for. When you have nothing but bombs and fire raining down on you, the natural thing for a person supposed to protect his family is to keep them away from danger, followed by the propaganda that they only target hostile targets or terrorists.
As much as any war is a war of bullets and bombs, so there is the war of the story. The message and the control of perception are essential in shaping the framework of the conflict. In this battlefield, truth is the first casualty of war. “I remember. Anything that they don’t agree with, they’ll call a terrorist,” Khairullah told Insider NJ. Assad had a propaganda piece that called me a terrorist, when in fact what I’m doing is going inside to deliver food, medicine and fuel. ‘they have.
Every day, the news reports hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children fleeing the country. Ceasefires, often violated, have been timidly put in place in certain cities to allow the departure of corridors of refugees. Often these corridors have been breached by Russian forces. These echo the waves of Syrians who had to risk their lives to escape the war at home. “We are very sad for all those lives lost and for the people who are constantly scared now, for those who have to flee into the elements,” Khairullah said. “I lost a cousin while he was fleeing. He died trying to cross the border. So I can imagine similar situations happening now. I have seen people crossing borders, I have been to the border between Syria and Turkey and I have seen the struggle. When you’re talking about old ladies or young children trying to crawl over rough terrain, it’s not easy. Sometimes they are targeted by border guards, which we understand countries have to defend themselves, but now you have innocent people who have nothing. At that point, it’s between what type of death will befall them. So sometimes they take a risk knowing they might die. But at least they feel like they’re running away with the hope of not dying some other way somewhere else.
Syria, according to Khairullah, was Putin’s prelude to Ukraine and the writing was on the wall for those who wanted to look closely enough. “I think Putin tested the waters in Syria, and they were in Syria for at least nine of the 11 years of the uprising against the Assad regime. They are using illegal weapons, they have targeted hospitals, they have targeted schools, they have killed thousands of Syrians without any repercussions. What would make him feel that he cannot do the same in Ukraine, which is much closer to him? If he was allowed to travel across several countries and kill the Syrian people’s desire for their freedom, why can’t he? In his head, he thinks he could take Ukraine. Why not? He has this desire to create his empire or re-establish the Soviet Union or whatever comes into his head. Nobody’s put a stop to it, and it’s not going to stop. We always talk about ‘what if we did that? What if we did that? As in the past, nobody stopped Hitler and look how far he went?
Khairullah warned that other countries could be threatened by Putin’s aggression, blaming the global community for its lack of an effective response years ago and giving the Russian president carte blanche. “I think allowing him to do what he did in Syria 100% drove what happened in Ukraine.”
As President Zelensky continues to call for more military aid, support and a no-fly zone, Khairullah has found many parallels to calls in Syria that have gone largely unanswered. “It was eerily similar to the demands of the Syrian people at the start of the revolution when I heard the Ukrainian lady [in Hawthorne] talk about covering the sky and allowing us to 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 that the people have the opportunity to win their freedom. What he does is the scorched earth policy through his air force which kills all defense systems and allows his troops to advance and take over a sovereign nation. He did it in Syria against people who were fighting for their freedom and now he is doing it in Ukraine.
Although Khairullah is a Democrat, like President Biden, he did not spare former President Obama criticism over US inaction in Syria. “I have no problem when it comes to human life to say what is right. I think Obama was wrong not to arrest Putin and stick to his “red lines”. As for former President Trump, Khairullah was unsure if Putin would have been held back from his invasion by Trump given their relationship, or if Trump would have let Putin have his way in Ukraine. “Trump was Trump. We never know. That was what was unique about Trump. He was in the headlines every day, because he just didn’t know which way he could go.
Khairullah said the situation was “not complicated” but that US lawmakers were unwilling to “do the right thing” regardless. “It makes them complicit in what happened in Syria and what is happening to the Ukrainian people.”
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