Syrian Canadians express mixed reactions to U.S.-led airstrikes

MONTREAL — 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) 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 but then everything goes back to normal.”

She said too many governments are ignoring the atrocities in her home country and 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.

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.”

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.

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 has 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.

Canadian aid organizations with members in Syria called for diplomacy over violent retaliation.

Rachel Logel-Carmichael, the head of humanitarian affairs for Save the Children Canada, said any violence, including bombs, hurts children.

“The continuation of war on a daily basis causes something called ‘toxic stress’ in children, who are having physical and developmental impacts from this trauma,” Logel-Carmichael said.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is working with non-governmental organizations and others to collect evidence of war crimes and other atrocities in Syria.

Logel-Carmichael said it’s not the role of NGOs to provide security intelligence, which would go against their principle of neutrality in conflict, however the organization pushes the Canadian government to prioritize protecting civilians in the crisis. The group has shared with Freeland a report on international-law violations against children in the Syrian conflict.

“This crisis in Syria is an unfortunate example of a conflict where the rules of war have been largely disregarded,” she said.

“Beyond the last week, there’s been several months of escalation and violence in the conflict, so we are very concerned about the impact this has had on children,” she said.

Gillian Barth, president and CEO of CARE Canada, said without diplomacy, there will only be more fighting, death, displacement and suffering. Over the past seven years, civilians have borne the brunt of “repeated and egregious war crimes,” she said, including alleged chemical attacks.

“The suffering of the Syrian people is beyond comprehension,” Barth said in a statement.

Moutaz Adham, Oxfam’s country director in Syria, also said peace talks should be prioritized over military solutions.

“While chemical attacks should be effectively deterred, choosing to use military force to do so risks escalating the crisis, putting civilians, who have already suffered so much, at even greater risk,” he said in a statement.

— with files from Amy Smart

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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