Syria’s Great Expectations

Trump’s airstrike on Assad raised hopes that the U.S. was finally coming to the aid of Syrian civilians. A month later, there’s confusion and disappointment on the ground.

Car bombing attack in Rashidin
A picture taken on April 16 shows the damage a day after a suicide car bombing attack in Rashidin, west of Aleppo, Syria.

Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

When the U.S. decided to launch a missile strike against one of Bashar al-Assad’s airbases last month. Aref Krez was overjoyed. “I am so happy, I am so happy,” he told me via WhatsApp with relief on the night of the strike. “Trump has done what no one did before, I have respect for him you know.” Aref fled Syria a few years ago, and now writes assessment reports about the safety of civilians and NGOs for the aid monitoring company SREO, from across border from Gaziantep, Turkey. Weeks later, Aref is nervous and confused. He says the U.S. should have done more, that he did not expect it to be a one-time strike, and that consultation with Syrian opposition might have helped the U.S in a realistic way.

He was not alone is his disappointment. The attack was initially cheered by Syrians mostly because it was the first direct U.S. military action directed at Assad, a sign of hope and something that Obama’s administration failed to do. Soon after, though, the regime’s planes resumed their attacks on civilian targets from the same airbase. Even though civilians kept dying, the U.S. did not launch any more strikes. There has led to increasing frustration on the ground.

Hamidi al-Halabi, a 13-year-old boy from the countryside of Aleppo’s nonregime area, said, “We are thankful for the strike.” But he also said, when he thinks about it, that he doesn’t think the U.S. would do much: “We do not trust the Americans.” For him, the U.S. has intervened too little and ignored too much.

“America does not care about the victims in Syria. Or human rights. Only its own interests,” Mohammad Moharram, a 29-year-old computer engineer who lives in Kafar Takharem, told me in late April. Moharram feels he is losing trust in the U.S and the international community, especially in recent weeks. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone cares about the Syrian people in opposition with Assad. To me, it all looks like a political game between powerful countries.” Frustration and skepticism is high for many on the ground in Syria.

In Idlib and Hama provinces, there seems to be an air of confusion about what the current administration really plans to do. Since the deadly chemical attack in early April, I have spent hours and days on WhatsApp having conversations with young boys, civilians, doctors, and engineers on the ground. Sometimes they send me voice messages late at night, and I have felt their hopes turning into feelings of abandonment and loneliness again. Many educated Syrians I spoke to understand the complexities that the United States faces in Syria with other powerful countries involved—like Russia, Turkey, Iran—but they also feel the U.S. has more power to tackle Assad than it claims or uses. As Moharram says, “America has real and strong allies in Syria: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Europe. They can do a lot. This is all the alliance that is needed. If only the U.S. works with these allies, it can move to isolate Assad and stop the war.”

Trump had defended Assad from criticism throughout his campaign for the presidency, describing him as a “natural ally” in the fight against ISIS. But after the April 4 chemical weapons attack, he abruptly changed course, talking about the cruel death of “beautiful babies” asking for “God’s wisdom” and for support from “all civilized nations” to “end the slaughter and bloodshed” as he launched 59 tomahawk missiles.

But the slaughter and the bloodshed have not stopped. My WhatsApp has buzzed daily with images of destroyed hospitals, and scenes of blood-drenched rubble, and casualties. Every morning I wake up to messages from Idlib with news of yet another attack. Assad seems to be on a hunting spree for hospitals, bombing facilities day after day. April was one the deadliest months for Syrian medical workers since the start of the war. One recent attack leveled a maternity hospital in Kafr Zeta on April 28.

Even in Western news coverage, Syrian faces or voices are rarely seen beyond the first breaking news. As the stakes for Syrians get higher, and the new administration takes more interest in engagement, it has become more important to listen to what Syrians want. In fact, I would argue the stakes have gotten higher precisely because Syrian civilians have not been brought to the table where decisions are made.

Even with the lack of follow-up, the strike has raised hopes among many supporters of Syrian opposition. “What Obama couldn’t do for so many years, Trump did in one day. So it shows it is not impossible to take action. You just have to do it,” points out Shadi al-Haj, a 31-year-old Syrian pediatrician who works out of a hospital in al-Ma‘arra, a Syrian town about 33 kilometers from Idlib province. “But we do need a continuous action.”

Shadi is one of hundreds of doctors still working everyday in nonregime territory, despite the daily bombing. He emphasizes the regime airstrikes specifically hunt civilian targets. “There is nothing here except civilians, families, children. There are no militants, or presence of arms in the rural villages where the bombs come the most. But [Assad] continues to attack people even after the [U.S.] airstrikes,” he says. All this, Shadi emphasizes, sums up to more evidence against Assad and more urgency for the U.N. Security Council and the international community to take action against Assad. “Every day the evidence grows,” he says, quickly pointing out to the urgent; “Every day the most important thing becomes, to keep civilians safer. Civilian safety should be the priority, and that should not be hard for anyone to understand.”

There is also a rising sense of frustration with the failures of the U.N. Security Council. This is often voiced by the doctors and civil defense volunteers. They believe that international bodies should prioritize the safety of civilians, medical workers and volunteers assisting civilians in Syria, and has not done so. “Hundreds of reports have come out, mission inquiries have revealed details about the condition of civilians and health workers, but the safety of medics and civilians hasn’t gotten better. Violence will expedite if there continues to be no intervention. And that will inevitably overload the capacity of volunteers trying to help,” said Dr. Mohamad Katoub, who works with the Syrian American Medical Society from Gaziantep, Turkey. SAMS has over 100 hospitals across Syria and a staff of nearly 1,700 doctors and health workers.

Among the dozen Syrian sources I spoke with, their primary demands remain consistent. The first step they say, is to ensure civilian safety by creating safe zones and then to stop Assad. Aref Krez presents a reminder that the revolution began precisely because people wanted freedom from a 17-year-old dictatorship. “Syrian people just want to live in peace, they belong to Syria and would live there. Those who have left will return, if a safe zone is created,” he said. “All armed groups—both rebels and pro-regime—should be given their boundaries, and should be made to remain within their borders.”

After that, Shadi says, it imperative that Assad be removed. This has been a major point of disagreement between the United States and Assad’s ally Russia, and even opponents of the regime concede that Russia’s cooperation will be necessary. “This can be done,” as Shadi assumes, “with the help of Russia.” Even if Russia has been hand in glove with Assad’s crimes, including the bombing of hospitals, many Syrians believe, as Shadi says. The United States “needs to work with Russia. Many years ago they proposed to take down Assad.” He is referring to 2012, when Russia had proposed a peace deal.

There may be signs that this is starting to happen. In early May, Russia proposed a ceasefire deal, along Iran and Turkey. The U.S. sent an envoy to the conference in Kazakhstan where the deal was proposed but has not officially weighed in yet. Since the deal came through, the fighting has reduced, but not stopped. Many Syrians will not trust any “safe zones” enforced by Russia and Iran and are disappointed that the U.S. has not followed up its military action last month with any diplomatic commitment this month.

For Mohammad, the computer engineer, it’s absurd to suggest enforcing a peace deal while bombing is still taking place. “Hama and Damascus are still being bombed, so what kind of deal is this? I don’t trust until I see an actual stop to violence by Russia,” he told me.

Syria has not been lost, yet. “There is more life here than death. The focus should be to avoid more casualties,” Shadi says. “Those people still alive, need safety. That is why me and my friends stay here.”

This is why consistent coverage that includes voices of the Syrian people is crucial to informed policy decisions. “Every single time there is an attack someone who was living, is killed. … It is worse than it was in 2014, or 2016 and it can get worse,” says Dr. Ahmad Dbais, who manages training and security for medics in northern side of Syria. “The media should cover every attack to get a full picture of what it looks like to live under regime’s bombing. It should not be about shock value, but about genuinely making solid decisions that will fix the problem. If the peacekeepers and powerful leaders of the world cannot do this, what else is left for them to do.”

For about a week, I lost touch with Shadi, which was worrying. I tried getting details on every victim I could from sources on the ground, hoping that none of them turned out to be one of the doctors I know. It was not until Friday morning Shadi got back to me again, sounding tense and broken. Two of his friends had been killed in an attack that had barely been covered in the outside media. “[Oh my God] It is so hard to stay alive,” he messaged me.