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'I Don't Think It Changes the Situation': Syrian Americans React to the U.S.'s Damascus Strikes

Opinions vary on the ethics of Trump's weekend airstrikes, but everyone agrees that they will do little to halt the Assad administration's reported use of chemical weapons.
Demonstrators march in New York City on April 15th, 2018, during an anti-war protest after President Donald Trump launched airstrikes in Syria.

Demonstrators march in New York City on April 15th, 2018, during an anti-war protest after President Donald Trump launched airstrikes in Syria.

When President Donald Trump announced targeted airstrikes on Damascus late Friday, he expressed outrage at the Bashar al-Assad administration's reported use of chemical weapons against what he then characterized "innocent civilians." But some observers brandished the relatively low number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States to question whether Trump—who, from the start of his presidency, attempted to bar Syrian newcomers from entering the country altogether—was genuinely concerned for Syrian lives or merely trying to deflect from turbulence faced at home.

On Saturday, hours after the U.S. coordinated with France and Britain to launch strikes aimed at facilities involved in the production of Damascus' chemical weapons arsenal, Representative Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, tweeted, "In 2016, the year before Trump became President, the United States accepted 15,000 Syrian refugees. This year we have accepted 11."

Analysts contacted by Pacific Standard agreed with Beyer's assessment. "How are we to believe in the sincerity of those who abstractly plead for 'humanitarian interventionism' if they aren't ready to show minimal compassion when real flesh-and-blood Syrian refugees show up?" asks Karim Emile Bitar, director of research at the Paris-based world affairs think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.

Syrian and other Arab Americans watching the strikes took radically different views of Trump's attacks—many questioned the intentions of a Trump administration that has endeavored to ban Syrians, whose son infamously likened Syrian refugees to a partially poisoned bowl of Skittles. All agreed, however, that Friday's strikes would do little on their own to respond to the Assad administration's use of chemical weapons.

Bassam Rifai, a political adviser at the Syrian American Council advocacy group, says that his organization is "glad our president is holding the Assad regime accountable for last weekend's chemical attack in Douma."

For Rifai, a protracted campaign in Syria is indispensable. "We urge the coalition to sustain action and to ground Assad's air force," he says. "In the wake of the Assad regime and its allies' continued failure to respect United Nations Security Council resolutions and its insistence in partaking in the most egregious mass atrocities—chemical weapons use being only one of them—we call for the creation of a no-fly zone to disable the Assad regime's ability to commit further war crimes and to force the regime to partake in legitimate political negotiations."

Rifai agrees with Beyer's assessment that the rate of refugee inflows to the U.S. is disproportionate to the magnitude of the conflict, but he is hopeful that a U.S. led campaign "removes Assad from power" so that Syrians "can stay in their homes, where they want to be, and refugees can return home."

Others disagreed with Rifai, arguing that the attacks were nothing more than Trump's signature political showmanship, the likes of which orchestrated another, similarly low-impact attack last year.

"The strikes are not about regime change, shifting power or ending the suffering of the Syrian people but rather a public show and slap on the hand against chemical weapons use," says Rashad al-Dabbagh, the founding director of the community advocacy organization, the Arab American Civic Council. "His efforts to ban refugees and immigrants indicate that the Trump administration's actions are anything but a commitment to supporting the rights of the Syrian people."

Several Syrian Americans who spoke to Pacific Standard on condition of anonymity, citing concerns for their families' safety in Syria, expressed disillusionment all around after seven years of conflict slaughtered hundreds of thousands and displaced countless more.

"Of course the Trump administration is disingenuous," says one young Syrian-American woman living on the West Coast. "Syrians don't believe any government is acting with their best interest at heart. But they also aren't complaining if the strikes the U.S. carried out mean one less bomb, one less plane in the sky."

Still, she wasn't at all hopeful that Friday's attack would do much to safeguard her relatives in Syria. "I feel it's a small slap on the wrist, simply to reinforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons. It does nothing to end the conflict or address Assad's other war crimes."

Another young woman living on the West Coast agreed—in the aftermath of several nervous hours wondering if her relatives were safe, it seemed Trump's announcement had amounted to much ado about nothing.

"Many [international Syrians] have been asking for U.S. interference in Syria against Assad for a long time and are happy to see a small blow against Assad. Others don't see how these strikes are different from any other U.S.-led strikes," she says. "Personally, I don't think it changes the situation for Syrians. Russian and Iranian forces, along with Assad's troops, have been bombarding Syria for years."

From some at the ground level—and also in the U.S., where people worry for their relatives abroad—it matters little whether the bombing is for or against Assad, it's still a continuation of what since 2011 has been immeasurable death and suffering.