A changed man? Syrians reassess 'villain' Trump's moral fibre

A changed man? Syrians reassess 'villain' Trump's moral fibre
Syrians warmly welcomed a series of US missiles strikes on a Syrian base said to be responsible for a chemical attack on an opposition town, but most remain skeptical.
4 min read
07 April, 2017
Better late than never was the general consensus of Syrian activists about Friday's US military strike on a regime airfield in response to a devastating chemical attack on an opposition town in Idlib province.

President Donald Trump's ordered US navy to target the Syrian regime airfield with 59 cruise missiles, the first such action by Washington against Bashar al-Assad's regime whose bombing of Syria has gone unhindered.

His decision has softened the tone of some Syrians about "Trump the villain" but the president is far from a hero. Many would like to see this the start of a more forceful US policy towards the Syrian regime. 

Gallows humour

Mataam Trump ("Trump Restaurant") was the new name of one falafal kiosk in opposition Idlib province on the morning after the air strikes on the Shayrat airbase, likely with a heavy dash of irony.

Syria's unique dark comedy was on display when activists shared a meme on social media showing an image of Trump adorned with the word "mnhebak" ("we love you").

Others have jokingly referred to him as Abu Ivanka, "Father of Ivanka [Trump]" yet the sobriquet is probably more down to cynicism than affection.
Negative views about the president who blocked entry to Syrian refugees still abound but some have said that it sometimes takes a bully to fight a bully.

Few believe Trump is about to embark on a major u-turn, but many hope he could at least halt the worst murderous excesses of the regime. 

"Any intervention that stops airstrikes on civilians is what we all hope for, but the situation with the Russians is more complicated," said Alaa Zaza, a Syrian children's rights activist and programme manager at Hurrass Network.

"There is no doubt that today's attack has set a precedent and brings changes to the rules of the political process. It opens a window for the international community to act, particularly after the mistake of the British and Americans not acting back in 2013," he added.

Referring to the gas attacks in Ghouta which saw planned Western air strikes on Syria cancelled at the eleventh hour.

Europe and the US now have a chance to rewrite the wrong when former President Barack Obama foolishly believed he would willingly hand over his chemical arsenal with little international oversight, he said.

On the ropes

This rare act of Western unison against the regime will no doubt rattle Damascus and Moscow, but Zaza believes this stance is useless unless Russia feels the heat too.
Read also: Trump's airstrikes were not humanitarian 

Diplomatic brawn must accompany military might to pressure the regime's European ally Russia into dropping Assad, he adds. This is far from a certainty.

"The problem is not just the use of chemical weapons, efforts should continue to neutralise any indiscriminate use of any weapons. The protection of civilians should be the target," he said.

"I want to stress from our work on protection of civilians that the use of barrel bombs, attacks on schools and hospitals and other war crimes are as bad as chemical weapons."

With it appearing there is little momentum behind the military strike, Zaza fears what happened at Shayrat air base - deep in the Syria's hinderland - could be fuel for the regime's propaganda machine.

Damascus likes to push conspiracy theories about Syria being a nation under siege by hostile Western and pro-US Arab neighbours. It has chimed a chord with many in the European and Arab world "left".

"Again, destroying air bases is welcomed by any civilian is Syria.. but what about the Russian airstrikes?" he asks.

Omar Abu Layla, CEO for @deirezzor24 activist network, hopes that the air strikes will send a strong message to Russia.

"I expected the air strikes to target the Republican Palace in Damascus, but the destruction of the Shayrat airport was a good achievement too. It is a heavy blow to the regime and its backers, mainly Russia," he said.

"We hope that the [US] will target [more] airports. Once these are pulverised then the crimes and atrocities against the Syrian civilians will be decreased."

Fears among Syrians in Deir az-Zour - the eastern province controlled by the Islamic State group - is that Russia could be urged by Washington to join forces and turn their guns on their towns and cities rather than Idlib.

Most analysts believe that Trump will be unlikely to target more air bases - and certainly not Syria's largest, the Russian-controlled airport in Latakia.

But military force is always on the table, and Trump appears to be sidelining more radical, Putinist allies in his circle in favour of more conventional hawkish Republicans - such as John McCain and James "mad dog" Mattis - who have been appalled by Assad's brutality.

Yet in these dark days, few Syrians predict a positive outcome.

The continued regime bombing on Saturday makes it appear that little has, or will, change in Syria but hope still remains.