International

My ambivalent support for US strikes in Syria

Commentary: A Syrian expatriate uneasily backs outside military intervention

Syrians smoke waterpipes, as they drink tea and coffee, at a cafe in Damascus
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's note: The author has decided to write under a pen name, to protect associates in Syria from possible reprisals.

The irony is not lost on Syrians that the very democracy and system of checks and balances that Bashar al-Assad so brutally denies them is now providing him with the cover and breathing space to carry on pacifying Syria. As the U.S. Congress debates taking military action against the Assad regime — a measure I ultimately support — I find myself holding the very same misgivings that have convinced other Syrians to oppose them.

When the British Parliament voted last week against any possibility of military action in Syria, the first I heard of the result was actually from relatives in Damascus. They had been watching the news intently and called me almost immediately to tell me, "Your guy lost the vote!" The sense of relief in their voices at Prime Minister David Cameron’s loss was palpable and in the days prior to the debate we had all shared a deep sense of foreboding. In our conversations I would ask them about the precautions they'd taken, and scold them for not taping up their windows to stop the glass from shattering on them. They still haven't done that yet. And yet in spite of our temporary relief there was also a sense of depression. The situation was still as it was, the fighting and the shelling did not stop. In fact it continued as "normal" the very next day.

The idea of wanting foreign intervention in Syria is one that I am still struggling with. At every moment, I ask myself if this is the right thing to do. What if innocent people are killed? What if this really is a prelude to turning Syria into some vassal state that is weak, corrupt and now completely subjugated by foreign countries. As a Syrian, I have had a lifetime of dogma fed to me about “the foreign enemy” coming to exploit us. But then I see the videos of those people who died from the chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus, a short car journey from where we used to live. I forced myself to see them, though I have avoided watching many of the graphic clips that have been flooding my inbox in the last two years. I see a girl who can't believe she is alive, and a grown man flopping about like a fish out of water. There is no blood or outward signs of violence, just people who appear to have lost their minds and bodily functions because of some chemical. It was these videos that terrified me over my loved ones more than anything I had seen before. These people were apparently killed by their own government. If our lives are so cheap and worthless that fellow Syrians could lob missiles loaded with Sarin on us, then pray tell me, what is left for foreign conspiracies? 

Maybe if we had all spoken up when the killing started, none of this would be necessary.

Like many Syrians, I follow social media almost as much as I do the traditional news outlets, if not more. The divisions I see over a possible U.S. intervention mark a very deep and noticeable divide in Syrian society. Those still in Syria and who have suffered the most from regime bombardments and aerial attacks, particularly in areas that are liberated, are incredibly vocal and supportive of them. On the other hand, friends and family living in the upmarket parts of Damascus still under regime control treat the looming threat of U.S. strikes as if they marked the coming apocalypse. They fear that this will make the regime become far worse and that the attacks will not change anything.

This time, I am the one who gets to note the irony that when the uprising started this wealthier segment of Syrian society took the longest to acknowledge that "something was happening." As for the people who from the beginning clamored the most for somebody to notice that they were being butchered in the streets, they are now the most enthusiastic supporters of a U.S. strike, come what may. It is this realization that makes me skeptical of those who oppose strikes. Maybe if we had all spoken up when the killing started, none of this would be necessary. But it is now, and the death toll and refugee count makes what is happening in our country the worst humanitarian crisis in living memory.

Talking to other Syrians about what is happening and whether we need the U.S. to intervene is one thing. But trying to explain this situation to people who only want to talk about the Iraq invasion of 2003 or about George W. Bush is entirely another. At every step of the way, Syrians, including myself, have had to constantly explain that we are not all al-Qaeda, that there are many rebels — let alone the vast majority of Syrians, who oppose their ideology and do not want their country to fall under its influence. Now we have people in the West who were otherwise silent enthusiastically brandishing “Hands off Syria!” placards. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says that the United States should “let Allah sort them out,” and online social media have pictures of unidentified U.S. servicemen holding up signs that say “I did not join up to fight with al-Qaeda in a Syrian civil war”. When I show my Syrian friends these pictures they look on with disbelief. We just cannot understand how anybody can be so ignorant.

There are some Syrians who oppose Assad and oppose intervention. I can respect their position because they have been consistent in their opposition to the regime from the start. But there are others who have never protested the regime's killing and who now loudly oppose any strike. In their case I find myself unable to express anything but contempt at their lack of outrage and empathy for Syrians already killed. Yes, I am feeling frightened, like many Syrians, but I have been frightened for a very long time. I do worry about innocent lives being lost. But when I see those same innocent lives being taken away so cruelly by a government that has been dishonest about the revolt and the scale of its repression since the start, I wonder what other choice we really have.

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