In the moments following Donald Trump's missile strike on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack on Thursday, voices from within the Syrian conflict and around the world rose in condemnation and praise. Some of those who suffered the tyranny of Syrian president Bashar al Assad couldn't help but applaud the strike. To these Syrians, the reflexive denouncing of Trump's action shows how little some observers understand the complexity of the Syrian situation. Dismissing the move as imperialist intervention means minimizing the role the Syrian military has played in the conflict. One of the central elements of the war is that the one force that should have been safeguarding Syrian lives—the country's army—is the one killing them.
Remember that the war began in 2011 after Assad sent tanks in response to an initially peaceful uprising in city of Dara'a. This was one of several places where civilians flooded the streets daily to protest against the government and its oppressive policies. As a result, Dara'a was placed under a siege for weeks, a brutal method of punishing and suppressing civil dissent.
The government's perpetuation of repressive tactics across Syria further exposed that the country's leaders were not concerned with Syrian interests, but their own narrow need to hold on to power. Soldiers were commanded to open fire at peaceful protesters, arrest activists, and close down entire cities, towns, and villages. As this mass violence was perpetuated by the government, some officers defected from the military, later forming the armed opposition.
In 2011, I was one of the thousands, maybe millions, of Syrians who joined the nonviolent demonstrations against the injustices of Assad's government. I still remember how, at the beginning, we were naïve enough to believe that the Syrian army would take the side of the uprisings and protect this movement and the people. But as we all know, of course, the opposite happened. We were faced with live bullets and bore the brunt of the army's brutality.
We were deemed terrorists and traitors, told that we deserve to be killed for raising our voice against the president. The forces who were so callously attacking us grew up believing that Assad and his father, Hafez, were some sort of gods, and that whoever expresses disloyalty against these deities deserves to be shot dead without even a trial.
The horror and the fear of the army wasn't felt just during the demonstrations. I remember how my heart dropped every time we stopped on a government checkpoint. I had to delete messages constantly, because soldiers had the right to go through our phones and laptops to make sure we were not participating in any anti-government activities.
The country lost its cohesion when the military no longer represented a national institution working for Syrian interests but a sectarian militia protecting the ruling family. Since then, other countries and factions—including the US and Russia—have insinuated themselves into the conflict, committing their own atrocities. But the original sin was the betrayal of the army.
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For Syrians affected by this conflict, the feelings of relief do not mean that they are embracing yet another intervention into the affairs of their country. They are searching for a grain of solace in a long, traumatic war. The Syrian army itself is allied with foreign powers and has shown a willingness to murder civilians; is it any wonder some Syrians praise a strike against that corrupt institution?
Abdul-Hameed Yousef, a father whose twins were killed by the chemical weapons attack, told ABC News that he wanted to thank Trump, but asked, "Why one airport, one base?" After Trump's strike, I spoke to Tarraf Tarraf, a doctor in a village 12 miles from Yousef's town. He told me, "We will welcome any military hit against Bashar al Assad. He has been killing his own people for the past six years. However, I am aware that this hit is nothing more than a political statement. And we know this is a very limited strike, but for us, for the first time, we felt like someone is taking a step to do us justice."
For those who have not lived inside a war, it is impossible to understand the feelings of those who have, the mixture of rage and sadness that surrounds you at such time. After the chemical attack, my friends in the area told me, a rumor circulated among the families of victims that their children might come back to life after the gas wore off, and many refused to bury them, waiting instead for their lifeless cold small bodies to become warm again.
In the aftermath of the strike, anti-war marches were held from New York to London. Yet these protesters were largely silent when US-directed airstrikes targeting ISIS were falling on cities and killing civilians.
As a Syrian who longs for justice and who believes most on the left are committed to worthwhile causes, I don't think that this selective solidarity is malicious. It's a product of bad analyses and lack of familiarity of the Syrian situation. Many protesters are ready to oppose any sign of US imperialism, especially when they hate the president leading that imperialist effort. Still others on the left are prepared to believe the Syrian government no matter how ridiculous its narrative—there are plenty of voices out there doubting that the chemical attack was Assad's handiwork.
Remember too that until last week Trump was prepared to work with Assad, despite the atrocities his government has committed. For his part, Assad once remarked, "We will work closely with Trump in his war against terror." In places like Manbej, American troops have fought on the same side as Assad-allied Russians.
Trump continues to support a ban on Syrian refugees entering America, exposing the lie that he really cares about the victims of Assad's violence. (I should know, being an asylum seeker in America today.) Why would I believe that a man who blocked the admission of hundreds of families who were waiting for years in refugee camps is all of a sudden interested in humanitarianism?
At this point, what would actually help Syria? First, the world should understand that Asaad is the main cause behind this chaos. Secondly, all sides should work towards a ceasefire—a complicated and thorny but necessary undertaking. Third, we should insist on accountability for all war crimes and seek justice for all Syrians. That last in the most important—without a reckoning with the horrors of this war, Syria will be unable to move on. Civil wars are ugly things, but any military intervention, whether from the Russians or the Americans, in my opinion, will likely only make things worse.
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who later became a photojournalist with Reuters and covered the ongoing conflict. She is currently based in New York City, where she is a researcher on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing a degree at NYU.