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Local Syrians express hope, wariness after US missile strikes

Emerson College Professor Yasser Munif at his home in Boston on Saturday.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Emerson College Professor Yasser Munif at his home in Boston on Saturday. Munif, a Syrian-American, studies revolutions in Arab countries.

President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes in Syria is political theater that will play well among some voters but have little effect on civilians caught in the country’s long civil war, said Yasser Munif, an assistant professor at Emerson College who grew up in Syria.

“I think it’s just a way for Trump to differentiate his politics or policies from [those of former president Barack] Obama,” said Munif, 46, who studies revolutions in Arab countries. He said Trump wants to demonstrate that “unlike Obama, he doesn’t really believe in diplomacy with thugs like Assad and Iran. He means business.”

Other local Syrian-Americans voiced a range of reactions, from optimism to resignation, as they discussed the Friday night airstrikes by US, British, and French forces on suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

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The strikes came in retaliation for an April 7 attack in Douma, Syria, where more than 40 people died of causes that appear to be related to exposure to toxic chemicals, according to the World Health Organization.

Nadia Alawa, founder of the Windham, N.H.-based humanitarian organization NuDay Syria, said the missile attacks accomplished little on their own but the action could signal a turning point.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2016
Nadia Alawa, founder of the Windham, N.H.-based humanitarian organization NuDay Syria, said the missile attacks accomplished little on their own but the action could signal a turning point.
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Nadia Alawa, founder of the Windham, N.H.-based humanitarian organization NuDay Syria, said the missile attacks accomplished little on their own — she believes the targets had already been emptied of troops and materials — but the action could signal a turning point of increased US intervention under Trump.

“I do believe that he feels pain when he sees children suffering, and I am 100 percent convinced that he will do something that has significant, long-lasting effects,” she said.

Alawa and Munif both have relatives living near the sites of the missile strikes who were unharmed, they said, and they have heard no reports of civilians being injured or killed in the strikes.

Seeing the resilience of Syria’s children, many of them too young to remember a life without war, humbles and inspires her, Alawa said.

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“I have to feel hopeful,” she said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to run a nonprofit in a country like Syria.”

Others were less confident that Friday’s attacks signaled a lasting change in US policy, but several agreed it was necessary to take action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose suppression of his opponents has left hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead.

“It’s always tough for any Syrian actually to cheer or to celebrate strikes,” said Mohamad Al Bardan, 30, a Syrian activist and engineer who lives in Cambridge. “However, they are like surgery when it is necessary. There have to be consequences for the Assad regime.”

Al Bardan and other Syrians said the United States and its allies need to follow their action on chemical weapons with penalties for the use of conventional weapons against civilians and with diplomatic pressure.

Western governments, Al Bardan said, must “push Assad to sit at the negotiation table and be serious on a political transition.” He wants to see free and fair elections held in Syria, with monitoring by the United Nations, he said.

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Al Bardan said he opposes Trump’s policies on immigration, especially regarding Muslims and refugees, as well as many of his domestic policies, but maintains hope that the Trump administration will increase US intervention in Syria.

“Obama totally ignored and abandoned Syria during the second term of his administration,” Al Bardan said.

“It’s always tough for any Syrian actually to cheer or to celebrate strikes,” Mohamad Al Bardan said.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
“It’s always tough for any Syrian actually to cheer or to celebrate strikes,” Mohamad Al Bardan said.

Omar Salem, chairman of the Karam Foundation, which provides aid to Syrian families and educational opportunities for Syrian refugee youth, said leaders in the West focus too much on chemical weapons, even as “barrel bombs are dropping indiscriminately on neighborhoods, killing civilians and ending whatever is left of the civil society that we have in Syria.”

“I don’t see how what took place last night is going to help going forward to get to the peace that all Syrians want,” said Salem, 43, of Canton, who lived in Syria until he was 22. “You’re basically telling the war criminals not to use chemical weapons anymore, but you can stick to conventional [weapons].”

Salem said he is concerned that Friday’s intervention is little more than saber-rattling.

“I’m not very optimistic,” he said. “The international community must put more pressure on the countries that are helping the dictator, and that’s the Russians and the Iranians. . . . I don’t think that’s going to happen. At least, it’s not going to happen now.”

Munif had a similarly dim view of the present but said his research gives him hope.

“The short term is very depressing,” he said. “I think we really need to focus on the long term.”

Munif is writing a book about the Syrian political resistance that is building a society underground — both figuratively and literally — to survive Assad’s brutal regime. He sees promise of a renewal of Syrian society in the efforts of everyday Syrians who have built hospitals, schools, Internet cafes, movie clubs, and even playgrounds beneath the rubble of their shattered cities.

The old idea that dictators are all-powerful and cannot be toppled is dead in the Middle East of today, he said.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he said, “and people have learned a lot, and I think will be better prepared for the future.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.