After last night’s airstrikes on a Syrian regime airbase, the world is wondering what the US will do next in this messy, seemingly unsolvable conflict.
For Syrians, the situation is even more complicated. Not only are they the people most affected by whatever comes next, but last night’s strike comes after living through six years of horror, as they anxiously remember what they have already lost.
The heartache for them is therefore not limited to predicting what the future might hold but also how their lives would have been different, had the international community acted sooner.
I was in northern Syria in 2013, when the regime conducted a chemical attack in rural Damascus.
Syrians were waiting for former President Obama to act on his “red line,” hoping it would alleviate their suffering. I was there to share in the disappointment — and anger towards the United States — after it decided to call off a proposed military strike on the Assad regime, instead striking a deal that would have the regime peacefully give up its chemical arsenal.
This was a deal that allowed a dictator to continue slaughtering his own people, using a broad range of conventional and unconventional weapons. It was a deal that failed to stop Assad from using chemical attacks again.
A lot has changed between 2013 and now. Ten of thousands of civilians have been killed through the use of barrel bombs, starvation and indiscriminate attacks.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced into areas that are not safe but where the chances of being killed are slimmer.
Hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee to other counties, where they have been treated as a security threat or a financial burden.
“I was so happy when I heard the news about the US airstrike,” said Reem Ahmed, a Syrian teacher who was displaced to Idlib in December 2016. “I wish that this attack was conducted in 2013. I would have still been able to play with my kids and husband, who I lost during the regime’s attack on Aleppo last summer.”
The US inaction in 2013 allowed the regime to continue committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Assad is as strong as ever. His allies have spared no means in stabilizing his power.
His regime has since been able to regain control of what were previously rebel-held areas, forcing people to submit to his rule, or to move elsewhere, patiently awaiting their death.
The regime is still refusing to sincerely engage in any political talks to end the Syrian conflict. It is instead focusing on military strategies to restore its power all over the country.
“I sometimes imagine that the international community had acted differently and we do not have Assad anymore,” said Ahmed Hassoun, a Syrian activist in northern Syria. “I imagine all the heated discussions I will have with my friends about what type to constitution we should have. The importance of women’s rights. The different mechanisms to monitor elections.”
The United States’ inaction also pleased radical groups. Following Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line,” Western support for Free Syrian Army groups was reduced, which significantly impacted the capacity of those groups to fight Assad.
These developments allowed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other extremist groups to demonstrate themselves as indispensable allies in the fight to defeat Assad, while also exploiting the weaknesses of their FSA rivals. Many FSA fighters defected to jihadist groups that had more stable funding and that were better trained and equipped.
“After the US’s decision not to attack Assad, despite his use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it was clear to all Syrians that the West would never intervene against Assad, no matter what he does,” said former Harakat Hazm fighter Omar Akoush. “People reacted to this differently, but all of them were disappointed. We started noticing that many fighters started joining other groups like [Jabhat al-]Nusra, who were stronger and better organized,” he added.
It is clear to Syrians that a US military strike will not change things overnight. The conflict can only end if US intervention is used as part of a strategy to protect civilians and pressure Assad to reach a political settlement.
But many Syrians also know that this airstrike could be a positive step.
This moment could ultimately save them from looking back in four years’ time and imagine what could have been, had Assad not been allowed — once and again — to get away with using chemical weapons on his own citizens.