Even though it caused limited damage, the U.S. reprisal attack on a Syrian air base undermined the objective of Tuesday’s chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun – to break the spirit of the regime’s opponents. After two days of despair, distress and suicidal feelings, the American attack renewed the hopes of many Syrians in rebel-held areas, who now believe they will get some protection and perhaps even ultimately defeat President Bashar Assad’s regime.
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“With the help of a few missiles that silenced the warplanes of the criminal Assad, hope has returned to the Syrian people,” a photographer in the Free Syrian Army in Idlib told Haaretz via email, following Thursday night’s airstrike. Other Syrians posted half-joking posts such as “Thank you, Abu-Ivanka,” comparing President Donald Trump’s resoluteness with former President Barack Obama’s hesitancy.
The Assad regime miscalculated what the U.S. response to the chemical attack in Idlib would be. The regime assumed that, as in earlier cases where it used chemical weapons, this time, too, its actions would go unpunished.
Khan Sheikhoun, where over 70 people were killed last Tuesday in a gas attack, is far from the front lines. The chemical attack there killed civilians, not combatants. So it’s clear that purely military considerations were not guiding the regime when it targeted the town. The aim of the attack was to suppress the rebels and the population that supports them, increasing tensions between rebels and civilians.
Such tensions have grown over the last year, following battlefield defeats, internal fighting, corruption and increasing tyranny, as well as the cumulative sense of battle fatigue and a wish to return to some sort of normalcy.
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The Assad regime wanted to make it clear to people living in rebel-held areas that there was no hope the world would come to their aid, and that they have no choice but to surrender to the regime and agree to living under its rule – as happened recently with a string of towns across Syria, most of them taking the step after enduring lengthy sieges.
According to rebels in Khan Sheikhoun and its southern outskirts, the decision to focus on their town seemingly stemmed from the fact that most of the fighters there had participated in battles initiated by the rebels against the regime in the northern part of the Hama district (a few dozen kilometers south of Khan Sheikhoun). Moreover, a major supply route of fighters and ammunition for these battles passed through the city.
“The regime wants to direct citizens’ anger toward us,” said one rebel. The chemical attack and heavy bombardment that followed led to the displacement of most of the town’s residents.
Immediately after the gas attack, civilians, activists and combatants in rebel-held areas expressed doubts regarding the ability to continue opposing Assad, due to his ability to perpetrate such horrific crimes without retribution.
“For us Syrians, our blood has become cheap across the world,” said Ahmed, a Syrian human-rights activist from the Aleppo region. “Enough – let them kill all the people! Things will be solved and we won’t bother you anymore,” he added.
The rebels did not believe the United States would respond, and that another war crime by the regime would be allowed to pass in silence. Hours after Tuesday’s attack, a rebel in the Free Syrian Army wrote: “I’m 24 but look 40. For six years I’ve taken part in the revolution, fighting the regime. We’re tired.”
Others exhibited suicidal thoughts and signs of deep despair. A human rights activist in Idlib wrote: “Today my friend died, tomorrow my neighbor will die. After that I will die. That’s our life.”
Trump’s decision to attack nullified the regime’s short-term victory to decimate rebel morale. Since the reprisal, the feelings of despair and fury among rebels have been replaced by optimism, even if it is a qualified optimism.
“We’re very happy and hope these attacks continue and that this isn’t a one-time attack,” said the activist from Idlib.
He reported that morale did improve somewhat and he feels better, as do many others. A cleric counselling rebels in the area almost sounded happy, saying that regime supporters are now the frightened ones. This came after his somber words following the gas attack when he declared, “We are waiting for the next deaths. We die a slow death and the world watches from the sidelines.” Over the last year, he had expressed a sense of despair with increasing regularity.
Regime opponents attach significance to the limited reprisal because it is the first time during the civil war the regime had been bombed in retaliation for a war crime it perpetrated. The skies of Syria are full of warplanes – Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Israeli – and none of the thousands of bombing missions carried out across the country has ever targeted the regime, which is responsible for 92 percent of deaths in Syria since 2011, according to a Syrian human rights organization.
An activist from Aleppo posted Trump’s picture on Facebook, jokingly referring to him as “truly the lion of the Sunnis” (a term used by supporters of Saddam Hussein), adding: “I know the attack won’t make a difference and it won’t prevent Assad from killing more Syrian people. But this is the first time in seven years that I feel the blood and soul of the Syrian children were not abandoned.”
The feelings of optimism are qualified, in part because the Trump administration made it clear Thursday’s attack did not indicate a change in policy. A theater director from Aleppo, who admitted a few weeks ago that he believed the Syrian uprising had been crushed, wrote after the American attack: “I hope this is the beginning of the end for Assad, but I think it’s just a political game.”
A rebel in northern Aleppo noted, “If they really didn’t want Bashar, they would give us anti-aircraft missiles.” And the combatant from the Free Syrian Army in Khan Sheikhoun expressed joy over the attack but added, “We hope that in the future they will bomb all the airfields, because otherwise the regime will take revenge, hitting us with even greater hatred.”
The sense of abandonment and despair that the regime wanted to instill among its opponents was dissipated by the impact of the Tomahawk missiles hitting the Shayrat air base. The regime wanted its opponents to see that the international community would continue to stand idly by at the sight of its massacres.
Crushing all hope for international protection was supposed to be the next stage on the road to eliminating opposition to the Assad regime. In despair, the rebels were expected to agree to a reconciliation with the regime or to flee the country. Instead, the attack contributed to shaking the widespread feeling among many Syrians that their blood is easily spilled. The attack, despite its limited aims, has renewed hopes among despairing regime opponents that their cause is not lost.
The writer is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking