The strike, which came in the wake of a chemical weapons attack that killed scores of people in northern Syria, marked the first aggressive action the United States has taken against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad after six years of war. More than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Trump has been a vocal critic of any kind of U.S. military action against the Assad regime and has cast Muslims, and particularly Syrian Muslims, as a threat to the United States. He recently tried to impose a ban on all Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S., an effort that was blocked by a federal judge.
“There is no illusion as to who Trump is, and what he represents,” said Sarab al-Jijakly, a Syrian American community organizer, blogger and advertising executive in New York, who suspects the Thursday night missile strike was “an orchestrated, theatrical response” that was more about a show of power than about saving lives.
The immediate effect of the strike was positive, Jijakly said: “Today there are no airstrikes over Idlib.” But he worried that the U.S. move was a one-off that employed little strategy and is unlikely to bring the war to an end.
Human rights organizations, the Obama administration, and the United Nations have long accused the Assad regime of committing mass atrocities against his own people, including war crimes. During six years of war, Assad has employed the indiscriminate use of airstrikes, shelling and chemical weapons against civilians; waged starvation sieges against opposition-held areas; and carried out mass arrests, torture and forced disappearances of critics.
The Turkish Health Ministry on Thursday said it believes that autopsies of some of the victims of the latest chemical attack indicated the use of the banned nerve agent sarin, a chemical weapon that Assad used in 2013.
“It’s certainly long overdue, but it also appears to be nothing more than showmanship,” Hassan Shibly, a Syrian American lawyer and the executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said of the U.S. military action in Syria. Shibly has advocated for an international intervention to end Syria’s war, but said “it looks like Trump is trying to show Obama how you enforce a red line.”
“A coordinated international effort against is absolutely necessary,” he said. “But it has to be genuine. The fact that the Russians were tipped off, and the Syrian military also appears to have been tipped off, raises the question of whether this was simply to appease the public by creating a perception of action.”
“I think many people were relieved to see the U.S. at least appearing to take action, but it’s too soon to tell” if Trump will follow it with more action,” he said.
Alia Malek, a Syrian American and author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” said she was inundated Thursday night with anxious and in some cases wry notes from friends and family in and near Damascus. Should we go to Beirut until things settle down? What’s coming next? Will you guys shoot us too? On social media, she said, some were gratified by the gesture from a world superpower they believe has ignored their plight for years, while others were suspicious of U.S. intervention in light of the results in neighboring Iraq.
Malek said she is reserving judgment.
“What I’m interested in is bringing the violence and bloodshed in Syria to an end and see a Syria emerge that can be a home to all of its people,” she said. “Do I think this furthers that goal? It’s not clear to me that this furthers the goal … my attitude is one of wait and see.”
Syrian Americans, who numbered about 143,000 in the year 2000, according to the U.S. Census, have been divided, largely along religious lines, over what they think is an appropriate response to the Syrian conflict.
Many Syrian Americans, including a network of predominantly Muslim doctors, have long advocated for an intervention to stop Assad from killing civilians.
But Fouad Younes, a military veteran, who — like many Syrian American Christians — has been largely supportive of both Trump and the Assad regime, said he was surprised and disappointed by the attack on Assad’s military air base. He said he doesn’t believe Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack.
“It was wrong,” Younes said. “They fired off the missiles without real proof that the government did this.”
A deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict is likely to put the lives of U.S. troops at greater risk, and one reason Younes voted for Trump was because he thought that was something Trump would never do.
He would prefer to see the United States deal with Assad and Russia, which has assisted Assad over the past year in carrying out strikes against Syrian rebels, as diplomatic partners to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.
But he also figures Trump’s missile strikes will be a “a one-off.”
“Trump wants to show that he’s not like Obama,” said Younes, referring to the former president’s infamous claim that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” inviting military action. “It’s about posturing and showing who’s in power.”