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7 April 2017

US air strike on Syria: what next for the civilians living in fear of the Assad regime?

Humanitarians hope that the unorthodox intervention will pave the way for more United Nations involvement on the ground. 

By Julia Rampen

“As a Syrian and Assad chemical weapons massacre survivor, I want to thank @POTUS for striking the dictator,” tweeted Kassem Eid, a Syrian now based in Washington DC. “You gave us hope. God bless your sir!”

The spectacle of Syrians thanking Donald Trump for attacking Assad’s military air base after the regime unleashed chemical weapons on civilians may be surreal, but for years, humanitarians have found themselves facing an insurmountable wall whenever intervention is mentioned. Those calling for airdrops to starving Syrians, or a no-fly zone to halt the daily bombardment of rebel-held areas, have first found themselves required to first deny this is the trigger for World War Three. 

At a protest against the bombing of Aleppo in late 2016, I found that even most of the British protestors could not stomach the thought of a no-fly zone, if that included the idea that actual force might be used.

But if the shadow of the Iraq War hangs heavy over British public opinion, Donald Trump’s decision, whatever the motivation, dazzles.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former soldier and a chemical weapons expert who has witnessed the atrocities unleashed on Syrian civilians first hand. The first reason he welcomes the air strike is simple – it knocks out bomber planes that otherwise would be merrily unloading on the hospitals he works with in rebel-held areas of northern Syria. 

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The second is the message that intervention sends. After the news broke, he told me: “This is a good thing. I have been calling for it for a long time, ever since August 2013 when a red line was crossed and we did nothing.”

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Uncomfortably for international law-abiding types, de Bretton-Gordon points out this kind of intervention would almost certainly not be sanctioned by the UN Security Council, on which Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, sits. “It was more about fear than facts,” he said, of the soul-searching over intervention. “Vladimir Putin [the Russian President] knows he is no match for Nato. He’s dying to do a deal with Trump.”

De Bretton-Gordon does agree with those still remembering Iraq on one point, though. As a former soldier who fought in the conflict, he is deeply aware that the US-led coalition’s military hardware was not backed up with a long-term plan.

“For the first time, Assad is on the back foot,” he said. “I would hope the UN gets more involved. I personally think we get UN peacekeepers on the ground, to allow reconstruction and prevent Islamic State and other al-Qaeda-based groups from fighting.”

Among the Syrian opposition, Russia is hated. One contact in the Syrian opposition was unsure what to think – except that she wished the US hadn’t warned the Russians first. Members of Syria Solidarity UK, which has lobbied for action over bombings, are cautiously supportive of the move, but note that between the controversial decision not to intervene in 2013 and this latest “red line”, Syrian civilians have been subject to a constant bombardment of barrel bombs.

Other Syrians think differently. One contact who comes from the same region told me he thought the intervention would bring more disorder and violence, with both Russia and the Gulf states arming their respective allies: “My main fear now is the Libya scenario.”

He added: “I feel we are back to square one. More killing, disorder, displacement, casualties and death.”

One contact, indeed, felt so despondent about the future of the country that she hadn’t read more than the headlines about the strike. With 11 million Syrians displaced, a death toll of more than 400,000, the cities in ruin and the most recent interventionist the highly volatile Trump, she is unlikely to be alone.