Syrian citizens and rebels expect no change after missile strikes

Attack on chemical sites by US and allies seen as unlikely to weaken Assad's tightening grip

A vehicle carrying Jaish al-Islam fighters and their family members evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma, arrives at the Wafideen crossing on April 14, 2018. 
Rebels in Syria's Eastern Ghouta surrendered their heavy weapons and their leader left the enclave, a monitor said, signalling the end of one of the bloodiest assaults of Syria's seven-year war.
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Ordinary Syrians and rebel fighters say they do not think the missile strikes on Syria by the US, France and Britain will swing the trajectory of the country's seven-year-old civil war against President Bashar Al Assad.

The strikes on Saturday morning were limited to sites believed to be linked to Mr Al Assad’s chemical weapons and caused no reported casualties.

“I support any attack on Assad from any party because he is an unjust dictator and murderer,” said Anas Al Wawi, whose parents were forced to leave their home in a suburb of Damascus last week by Mr Al Assad’s forces.

Mr Al Wawi’s family hails from Douma, the target of a chemical attack on April 7 that triggered Saturday's military response by the US and its allies. Two days after that attack, the rebels holding Douma began withdrawing under a deal with the government, bringing yet another region under its control.

However, instead of dealing a blow to Mr Al Assad, the strikes emboldened his supporters around Douma, Mr Al Wawi  said, leading to attacks on Saturday morning against buses carrying people from the town to rebel-held areas in northern Syria as part of the evacuation deal.

“My brother was on one of the buses that was attacked,” he said. “A young man on the bus was killed.”

US President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airbase last April after a sarin gas attack on the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun that killed scores of people. He said the attack was intended "to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons". However, there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons being used by the Assad regime since then.

Saturday's strikes were more wide-ranging and included Mr Al Assad's chemical weapons research, production and storage facilities at three sites in Damascus and Homs.

"This should have happened a long time ago because of the repeated use of chemicals by Assad,” said Mohamed Basirini, a doctor from Khan Sheikhoun who left the town in 2014 and now lives in Turkey.

But Dr Basirini said he did not expect it to make a real difference.

“Currently, the best thing to do is to create a no-fly zone over liberated areas where people can live relatively safely,” he said.


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Mr Al Wawi doubted that Mr Trump's motives had anything to do with sparing Syrian lives.

“It has nothing to do with chemical weapons. It is for Trump and his domestic battles,” he said, referring to the US president’s ongoing legal troubles. Last week, federal agents raided the office of Mr Trump’s personal lawyer.

There were reports Mr Al Assad’s forces had moved military assets and personnel away from bases in the country over the past week, and an employee at one of the largest hospitals in government-controlled Damascus said before the strikes that there had been no preparations for an increase in casualty cases.

The hospital employee also said he did not believe the strikes had anything do with chemical weapons use.

“It is because the terrorists lost to the Syrian army in most areas,” he said, referring the array of foreign-backed rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr Al Assad. “What we want from the Americans is to stop supporting terrorists and help the Syrian government overcome the crisis.”

Ever hopeful, rebel groups told The National before the strikes they had made plans to take advantage of US strikes in any way possible, potentially launching operations against government forces in their wake. But on Saturday, rebels expressed disappointment and fear of a renewed government offensive against Idlib province, the last major part of the country under rebel control.

"I am expecting an escalation by the regime against civilians in Idlib and in the areas of northern Syria and the liberated areas, because the regime always takes revenge on civilians," one rebel fighter told Reuters.

"More was expected from the American strike to affect the path of the war and to curb Assad's crimes."

Fighters from the Jaysh al-Izza (the Army of Glory), affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, take part in a training session in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib on April 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
Rebels from the Jaysh Al Izza group, affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, take part in a training session in Idlib province on April 9, 2018. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

Even before the strikes took place, opponents of Mr Al Assad said they had low expectations, arguing that a severe strike would galvanise Mr Al Assad’s foreign backers, a dynamic that has also previously shaped the conflict. When rebels — partly with US support — were putting heavy pressure on government forces in previous years, Iran and eventually Russia stepped in to shift the balance. Both countries have troops on the ground in support of Mr Al Assad, and the Russians have provided him heavy air and artillery support, something the US has declined to do for the rebels fighting him.

“If the American strike were serious, the Russians would instantly intervene,” said Suhayb Al Ali, a journalist from Homs province.

Nonetheless, Al Ali said he supported any US action because of the possibility that a severe strike might pressure Russia to hasten its efforts for a political solution in Syria.

“The Assad regime, Russia and Iran have gone so far in the war against the Syrian people using all sorts of weapons, including chemicals. The Syrian people don't have much left to lose,” he said.

With reporting by Ahmed Barakat in Turkey