On April 4, the Syrian regime dropped a toxic chemical on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, killing at least 69 people, including many children. This incident was the most widely publicized chemical weapons attack since the 2013 attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 civilians. In both cases, victims suffered excruciating deaths from sarin, a nerve agent that is banned under international law.
After the onset of the revolution in 2011, Syrian activists and humanitarians in the United States called upon President Barack Obama to take decisive actions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S.-based lobbying organizations, including United for a Free Syria and the Syrian Emergency Task Force brought regime defector “Caesar” to testify in Congress and has worked to publicize his documentation of torture and starvation in Syrian prisons. The Syrian American Council has worked to lobby for no-fly zones and increased assistance to factions within the Free Syria Army. Syrian American doctors have made powerful appeals in support of calls for intervention.
The election of Donald Trump initially left many of these advocates frustrated. Activists were aghast at Trump’s executive orders banning refugees from Syria. Syrian organizations expressed alarm at recent comments by the administration that the United States would have to accept the “political reality” of Assad’s authority. Now, however, many Syrians across the diaspora are praising President Trump’s retaliatory strike against Assad, and, in some cases, are asking him to do more. Mr. Trump has taken note, posting a grateful response by Syrian activist Kassem Eid on his Facebook page.
Are diaspora communities really hawkish meddlers in their homeland?
Scholarly accounts of diasporas have long been concerned with the effects of diasporas on foreign policy. Critics such as Benedict Anderson and Samuel Huntington have decried these long-distance nationalists as incalculably damaging, framing exiled elites as pro-war and dangerous meddlers in home-country politics. The role of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress in the 2003 invasion of Iraq exemplifies the dangers of expatriate hawkishness.
But are Syrian advocates of intervention more of the same? My recently published research on diaspora support for Western military intervention, which includes interviews with 76 Syrians in the United States and Britain advocating against the regime and for humanitarian relief, paints a different picture.
Syrian activists are decidedly not pro-war
I find that Syrian activists are far from the hawkish interventionists depicted in prior accounts. On the contrary, each of those interviewed had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many had participated in antiwar protests and have worked to support nonviolent civil disobedience in Syria. These respondents also supported the revolution because of its initially peaceful character.
Advocates abroad have diverse backgrounds and politics
Nor did I find that these activists were professional or elite lobbyists. In fact, the Syrian American community did not have any organizations or associations actively lobbying against Assad before the Arab Spring. Instead, a range of émigrés, exiles, students and second-generation youths came together gradually only after the onset of the 2011 revolution to publicly condemn the regime.
I also find that their pro-intervention views were not the product of shared identities or political support for Republican politicians. Rather, these activists varied in their ages, emigration histories, regional and ethnic origins, religious affiliations and voting preferences.
Given the controversies and complexities of U.S. intervention in Syria, why then have so many of these diverse activists come together to support Trump’s punitive action against Assad?
Support for intervention has grown as all other options have failed
My research shows that Syrians in the United States and Britain came to advocate for a no-fly zone and targeted strikes because they see no other way to stop the violence. They have watched as diplomatic efforts have failed time and time again in Geneva and the United Nations. Meanwhile, civilians at home have been slaughtered and subjected en masse to bombings, starvation, rape, torture and execution in Assad’s prisons. After years of disappointment and almost half a million casualties, many Syrians have come to think — along with many Republicans and former Obama administration members — that military intervention is the only viable means to stop state-sponsored mass killings and the outpouring of refugees.
Activists abroad have deep and painful ties to Syrians at home
The diaspora’s responses have been shaped by transnational ties to kin and compatriots under siege. In my experience, it is rare to meet a Syrian who has not lost family members to the war or does not have relatives who remain at risk. Activists abroad also view their role as amplifying the demands of Syrians on the ground, such as activist-artist Raed Fares and dissident Eid — also known as Qusai Zakarya, who testified at the United Nations about being gassed in the Aug. 21, 2013, attack.
Furthermore, many of these activists have witnessed the carnage firsthand while volunteering to treat victims of war in Syria. As such, calls for intervention in the diaspora have evolved in conjunction with demands by those inside Syria for a no-fly zone.
Humanitarian norms influence calls for intervention
Somewhat paradoxically, Syrians’ calls for military intervention cannot be understood apart from recent changes in humanitarian norms against mass murder. Echoing the arguments of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, activists think that Syria’s problem from hell warrants decisive action. This does not mean that Syrians think state leaders act out of altruism — if anything, the past six years have taught them the opposite. Rather, they argue that upholding the “responsibility to protect” doctrine is the legal and moral responsibility of democratic states and that failing to do so enables autocrats to wield state sovereignty as a shield against international law and civilian protections.
Of course, not all anti-regime Syrians are pro-intervention, and many who are readily admit that it is highly problematic. After all, it is these same activists who are leading the charge to monitor and condemn civilian casualties caused by U.S. strikes targeting the Islamic State militant group. As one respondent lamented, “Whatever they’re going to shoot, they’re not smart, and Iraq is the proof.”
Yet dismissing Syrians’ pro-intervention views as pro-war or pro-Trump would be a mistake. As Fares puts it: “We are antiwar. We are against Assad killing our children.” Syrian Americans are continuing to critically evaluate the Trump administration’s conflicting policies on their home country and refugees. At the same time, under extraordinary circumstances, these activists are left with few options but to lobby states and international institutions to uphold purported commitments to human rights. For this reason, activists in the diaspora are likely to continue imploring Western powers to heed the call of “never again” and eliminate Assad’s capacity for mass killings.