“Fifty-nine missiles? Why would you use fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles in one place without having a solid plan?” Shadi al-Haj, a 31-year-old Syrian pediatrician, said during a call over WhatsApp, on 9 April 2017. He was referring to a missile strike that took place three days earlier, on the al-Shayrat airfield, a military base controlled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The strike had been conducted by the United States military, on the direction of the country’s president, Donald Trump.
Shadi was speaking to me from al-Ma‘arra—a Syrian town nearly 33 kilometres from Idlib province. On 4 April 2017, chemical bombs carrying the nerve agent sarin detonated in the air above Khan Sheikhoun, a small town in Idlib. The poisonous gas killed nearly 90 people—“some writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth” according to a report in the New York Times—and injured more than 200, according to doctors on the ground. Shadi told me that after the bombs fell on Khan Sheikhoun, he was one of the doctors treating the injured, which included many children, at a regional mobile clinic. The clinic filled quickly, Shadi said, and it soon ran out of supplies. “We had to send [the patients] to hospitals in nearby towns,” he said.
The United States government laid the blame for this attack on Assad and his ally Russia, accusing Assad of killing innocent Syrian citizens. It was ostensibly in punishment for this transgression that Trump ordered the strike. Though expert opinion on the decision—which, Trump glibly informed a reporter, he made while eating cake—was divided, many in America and the international community hailed itas a fitting response to Assad. It did, however, lead to a considerable amount of confusion on Trump’s policy for Syria—in the run-up to the US presidential election, Trump had claimed he would not intervene in the Syrian conflict if elected president. Trump had also condemned the actions of the previous president Barrack Obama, who, in 2012 had warned Assad in no uncertain terms that if the latter crossed a “red line” on chemical warfare, he might face US action. But when nearly 1,400 Syrians were killed during a chemical gas attack outside of Damascus in 2013, the Obama administration decided not to take military action—after the chemical attack, Trump characterised this as the administration’s “weakness and irresolution.” Trump then said that his position on Syria had changed. “They will have a message,” he said. Not long after, he launched the missile strike.
While the confusion over Trump’s stance has led to speculation and debate among foreign-policy experts, among Syrian citizens, it has instilled fear. Shadi, along with several other Syrians I spoke to, did not take Trump’s attack as a serious show of support from the US for Syrian civilian lives. “We are confused and quite scared of how the US government’s steps are going to affect those on the ground,” said Dr Mohamad Katoub, who lives in Gaziantep, Turkey, and works with the Syrian American Medical Society, a non-profit medical organisation that runs makeshift clinics and hospitals in conflict areas in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Katoub supervises over 100 such hospitals across Syria and manages a staff of nearly 1,700 doctors and medical-health workers. “I am worried about my staff all the time,” he said. “The worry keeps me up through the nights.”
Shadi described the missile attack as “incomplete,” because it failed to deter Assad. Salem Abulnaser, a dentist who was in Aleppo during the siege on the city and is currently residing in Turkey, echoed this view. “I hope that airstrikes could cause Assad to stop fire, but they didn’t,” he said. “It will not help civilians if [Trump] keeps bombing,” Abulnaser added. “He will bomb again, and Assad and Russia will fire back—not at him, at us.”