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Activists, rebels and regime supporters are divided over the prospect of a Western military campaign to punish the government for an alleged chemical weapons attack.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — It’s not about saving Syrian lives. It’s about Obama saving face.
This is how one Syrian, Abdullah Omar, describes the US proposal to carry out limited strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the wake of a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians last week.
Omar lives in a rebel-held town near Turkey, where he and his family assist refugees turned away from the Turkish border.
“The majority of people here support US airstrikes,” Omar said. “They think it will give the rebels an advantage over the regime. But in my opinion, it won’t. The Syrian people will keep suffering either from the regime or the extremists.”
Since reports and horrific footage began surfacing Aug. 21, apparently of a devastating chemical weapon attack on opposition held areas of Damascus, the world has scrambled to make sense of the heinous attack.
Details as to precisely who or which side of the multi-faceted conflict is responsible for the attack have been hard to pin down. But the US government has publicly stated it has no doubt the Assad regime is responsible. This week, four US naval vessels were moved into the region in preparation for a 3-day strategic missile attack that may begin as soon as Thursday.
While they mourn the death of hundreds of their countrymen, Syrian reaction to these planned strikes has been mixed.
Many Syrians voiced concern that attacks would amount to little more than a “show” staged to silence criticism of the international community. One Syrian refugee referred to the current threats of strikes as a “political comedy,” saying the planned missile attacks were not designed to deal any real blow to the Syrian regime. It's not in the interests of the West to end the current conflict, the refugee said.
“The regime has crossed so many red lines but the world’s reaction has come too late,” said Omar from his home in the Syrian town of Atmeh. “Even now some are trying to delay the strikes. It’s like sending a message to Bashar that he still has 4 days to do what he wants and he has already started by evacuating some military bases from around the country, so this strike won't change anything on the ground.”
Rebel fighters in Aleppo confirmed the regime army had pulled out from several locations without a fight, including Kuwaires military airport in Aleppo province.
The movement of troops and weapons has added to fears that this week's warnings have given the regime time to relocate any stockpiles of chemical weapons. This would render previous intelligence on the location of such weapons obsolete and hinder the effectiveness of strategic airstrikes.
For Free Syrian Army fighter Muhamad Raslan, US missile strikes may be too little and almost too late, but he and his fellow fighters still welcome them.
“Although it is so late for the USA to intervene, it may help us a lot,” Raslan said from the province of Idlib. “But frankly in Syria we do not need anyone to fight for us. We need weapons and ammunition only.”
In Lebanon, a Syrian refugee who asked to be identified as Kash Kash also supported the proposed strikes.
“I think we need to destroy Bashar by any means,” he said. “My dream is to remove both Bashar and the free fighters so Syria can be truly free, but first Bashar must go.”
For supporters of the Syrian regime, the announcement of planned US strikes has come as no surprise. Many urged their fellow Syrians, on both sides if the conflict, to stand against such a move.
“We have to stand all together against the USA because from the start it is the USA that made this war inside Syria to get rid of the extremists,” said one government supporter, a university student living in the city of Idlib. “Now there is no longer an opposition or a pro Bashar side. All that is left is the story of Syria,” she added.
For Basel Almasri, who once stood staunchly on the side of the revolution, the lines have also blurred.
“This is now a war between the extremists and a dictatorship,” he said.
Reluctantly, Almasri said international intervention has now become the “only solution.”
The pending escalation to a hands-on international conflict has left many to fear that yet more innocent Syrian lives will be lost.
“If the USA gets involved things will escalate even more. More people will die,” said one Syrian Kurdish refugee now living and working in Beirut. “After the regime ends we will have a new Iraq and the fighting will stretch on longer.”
Adding to such fears of an escalation in the violence are tough new border policies imposed recently by all countries neighboring Syria.
In a press release Wednesday, Refugees International urged Syria’s neighbors to relax their policies.
“The Lebanese government now requires Syrians to pay $200 a year in order to maintain legal status, forcing many families underground and countless others out of the country,” the statement said.
Iraq has set a daily quota limiting the influx of Syrian refugees, which sharply increased in recent months along the northern Kurdish borders where fighting has been intense between Kurdish and Islamic groups.
Back on the Turkish border, Omar said officials are no longer allowing anyone to pass through the borders without official paperwork. For most refugees, including his own family, that documentation is impossible to obtain.
“The ultimate effect of these policies is that fewer Syrians can escape the terrible violence engulfing their country,” said Refugees International Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber from southern Turkey.
For Omar and his family — wanted by the regime and fearful of Islamic groups that now rule their village — the options are fading fast.
“If something happens, we will be stuck inside this dying country with no escape.”