Mix of worry, optimism as Syrian Canadians react to U.S.-led airstrikes

Syrian Canadians expressed a range of reactions to the recent U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria's government, with some denouncing foreign aggression and others calling for even stronger action to end the conflict that has devastated the country.

Meanwhile, international community responds with support or outrage

A Syrian soldier films the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center Saturday, which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

Syrian Canadians expressed a range of reactions to the recent U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria's government, with some denouncing foreign aggression and others calling for even stronger action to end the conflict that has devastated the country.

Toronto resident Bayan Khatib was at a community fundraiser with other Syrian Canadians on Friday night when she learned the U.S., Britain and France had launched the joint airstrikes in retaliation for a suspected chemical-weapons attack on April 7 that killed 43 people and injured hundreds more in a rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

She said most of the Syrians in the room felt a mixture of optimism and worry.

"Many were excited there is finally something happening, that the [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime will see some consequences, but other people were quite worried about civilian casualties, further destruction of Syria," Khatib said.

We worry that's it's not part of a larger strategy to end the war crimes in Syria, but just a show of power that's going to scare the regime a little bit…- Bayan Khatib, Toronto-based Syrian Canadian

"We worry that's it's not part of a larger strategy to end the war crimes in Syria, but just a show of power that's going to scare the regime a little bit but then everything goes back to normal."

She said too many governments are ignoring the atrocities in her home country and she would like to see Canada take more of a leadership role in ending the conflict.

She also said she's not impressed with the reaction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who expressed support for the strikes but seems reluctant to get directly involved.

Khatib said she doesn't believe most Canadians are aware of the true scale of the human rights atrocities that are striking her home country.

'If they knew, they would care'

Were they to see the images she sees of bloodshed, torture, and bodies being pulled from the rubble, she believes Canadians would rise up and demand action, as they did in 2015 when a photograph of a lifeless Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach prompted an outpouring of humanitarian action.

"Trudeau is not acting because the Canadian public doesn't know what is happening in Syria," she said. "If they knew, they would care."

Syrian-Americans protest the missile strike on their homeland during an anti-war rally opposing the military strikes by western countries in Syria, in downtown Los Angeles Saturday, April 14, 2018. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Muzna Dureid, a Syrian who came to Montreal a year and a half ago, agrees that Friday's strikes don't go far enough in putting pressure on the Assad government.

"We need more serious steps, more pressure to go to the negotiating table to find a political solution," even if that includes military intervention, she said.

She was less critical of Canada, however, pointing out the country's continuing humanitarian efforts in the region.

"Canada has already done a lot, or tried to do what it can in terms of humanitarian intervention, and supporting civil society," she said.

While some Syrians are in favour of airstrikes, others say foreign aggression isn't the answer.

In Montreal, a protest against the strikes was scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

We disagree with anyone bombing our country no matter what the reason is- Waseem Ramli, protest co-organizer 

Co-organizer Waseem Ramli said he's disappointed that Trudeau is supporting aggression with no evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

"We disagree with anyone bombing our country no matter what the reason is," he said in a phone interview. "Politics and peace negotiations have to always overcome."

While he is a supporter of the Syrian government, Ramli said he would change his mind if concrete evidence were to emerge that Assad were behind the chemical weapons attack.

In that case, he said it would be up to the United Nations to intervene.

Pence defends mission, Trump's tweet

Hours after U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the missile strike targeting the Syria's suspected chemical weapons — tweeting, "Mission Accomplished!" — Vice-President Mike Pence defended the president while building support among U.S. allies for the joint strikes with Britain and France.

"The objective of the mission the commander in chief gave our military forces and our allies was completely accomplished — with swift professionalism," Pence told reporters at a summit of Latin American leaders, noting there were "no reported civilian casualties."

In a tweet on Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump did not mention his administration's policy on Syria going forward.

Instead, he chose to focus on media reports seeming to look askance at his phrase "mission accomplished," regarding the airstrikes, and how the same words were used by then-President George W. Bush just six weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Trump said the "Fake News Media" were seizing on "the only way" they could to "demean" the Syrian raid.

Pence, speaking to world leaders at the Summit of the Americas Saturday, expressed gratitude to Canada, Colombia and other nations that had voiced support for the strike and urged "every nation in this hemisphere of freedom" to support the military action.

'Wrong side of history'

And while Trump grapples with the ongoing Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, Pence sought to draw a bright line against Vladimir Putin's alliance with Syria following the suspected chemical attack. "Our message to Russia is that you're on the wrong side of history," Pence said.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence told reporters at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, on Saturday the United States did the morally right thing when it attacked Syrian chemical weapons facilities in retaliation for an attack on civilians. (Andres Stapff/Reuters)

Shortly before Trump's address to the nation Friday night, Pence was whisked away from the summit in his motorcade so he could return to his hotel to inform congressional leaders of the pending missile strikes. Pence watched Trump's speech from his hotel suite, joined by aides.

In addition to Trudeau, leaders from Australia, Israel and Germany voiced their support of the attacks, as has Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Germany's foreign minister said he hopes the strikes will result in a fresh effort to find a peaceful solution to the seven-year conflict.

Heiko Maas told public broadcaster ARD the military attack "should make clear to all parties that we don't just have the opportunity but the necessity to take up the political process again."

Maas said European Union foreign ministers will meet Monday to discuss the situation and put forward proposals for steps going forward.

Germany didn't join the United States, Britain and France in the strikes, though Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the attack "necessary and appropriate."

But other nations denounced the attack.

Iran, a key ally of Syria, condemned the strikes, saying no country has a right to take punitive measures against another "beyond international procedures."

The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying that Iran had warned about the possibility that "terrorist groups" were behind the alleged chemical attack that triggered the strikes.

Missiles streak across the Damascus skyline as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital Saturday. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

Serbia, Russia's key ally in Europe, says it won't take sides in the Syrian crisis following the U.S.-led attacks on Syrian chemical weapons sites.

President Aleksandar Vucic said in a statement Sunday that Serbia generally condemns the use of chemical weapons, but "won't get involved in big powers' relations."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all Security Council members to use restraint but said charges of chemical weapons use demand investigation.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis called on world leaders to renew efforts to bring peace to Syria, saying he was deeply troubled by their failure to agree on a joint plan to end the bloodshed.

With files from Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News