Afaf Mohammad lives near the Scientific Research Center in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh – a facility that was targeted by missiles on early Saturday as part of a joint military operation by the United States, the United Kingdom and France against the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapons capabilities.
The sound of heavy blasts woke the 25-year-old mother of two at around 3:50 a.m. She sprinted across the house to check on her children, and by the time she reached them she could already see flames and explosions from her window, she told Syria Deeply.
Outside, Mohammad said, she witnessed a frenzy. Some residents of the area were streaming into underground bunkers. Others were screaming on the streets: “They have struck us, this is the American strike.” Some stayed in their houses, watching the explosions from their open windows.
The incident marked a moment of panic and fear for everyone, Mohammad said. For some, she added, it was also a moment of brief hope.
“Some people were pleased with the strikes because they hoped they would target the Syrian government,” she said. “But these people were disappointed when they found out that the attack was so limited.”
The U.S., the U.K. and France later announced that the strike was limited to three suspected chemical weapons facilities, including the research center in Barzeh. The Pentagon said the missile attacks struck at the “heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The Russian military claimed that Syrian military facilities suffered only minor damage and that Syria’s air defense systems shot down 71 of the 103 cruise missiles before they reached their intended targets. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, however, denied Russia’s claim, saying no U.S. aircrafts had been “successfully engaged by Syrian defense forces.”
No civilian, Syrian government or allied forces casualties had been reported as of Sunday evening. Reports claimed that most facilities had been evacuated days before the attack, thanks to warnings from Russia.
For many Syrians on the ground, including Mohammad, targeting suspected chemical weapons facilities is not enough if no damage is done to the government’s air force and the helicopters that are allegedly used to drop these toxic substances on civilians.
“They should have bombed the actual bases the Syrian army uses to kill us,” Mohammad said.
The U.S., the U.K. and France, however, have said that the strikes were not meant to cripple the Syrian government’s defenses or lead to “regime change” – they were intended only to deter Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons.
For some, though, the claim that deterrence is the only motive behind the attack is questionable.
“In my opinion, the strike was meant to settle scores between competing international powers,” said Rami al-Sayyed, a 35-year-old media activist from southern Damascus.
“It was a message to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin that the U.S. and its allies still have a hand to play in Syria and that they could reshuffle the cards and change the game at any moment,” he said.
Al-Sayyed dismissed the view that the attacks were driven by a legitimate concern for the well-being of the Syrian people. For more than seven years the Syrian population has been targeted by countless government attacks, some of which reportedly involved chemical weapons.
Just days before the suspected poison gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma that killed some 70 people, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said it has documented at least 214 attacks using toxic substances carried out by pro-government forces since December 2012. Human Rights Watch said that it has documented and confirmed at least 85 chemical weapon attacks since August 2013.
“The U.S. and most of the world don’t actually care about the Syrian people, all they care about is political interests. We, the Syrian people, have been attacked by all kinds of weapons, including chemical weapons,” al-Sayyed said. “The missile attack on Saturday was only a way for the U.S. to save face,” he said.
Rahaf Akram, a 28-year-old student at the University of Damascus, expressed a similar sentiment. She said she didn’t welcome the strikes because she believes only a political solution would end the bloodshed in Syria. Responding to chemical weapons attacks with military action, she said, would only perpetuate the war.
Allies of the Syrian government, including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, made the same argument on Sunday, saying that the missile attack would adversely impact prospects for a political settlement in Syria.
Akram also questioned the relevance of the attack for everyday Syrians, who have already suffered years of conflict. “The war has been going on for seven years. What makes the world wake up just now to the crimes of President Assad?”
Like al-Sayyed, Mohammad Abdullah believes the strikes had more to do with an international power struggle over Syria than deterrence. The U.S. and its allies, he said, wanted to show what kind of force they are willing to use in Syria to incite their rivals to make concessions.
However, like many other Syrians who spoke to Syria Deeply, the 28-year-old activist from Damascus said the attacks were unlikely to alter the balance of power.
The Syrian president himself has tried to convey that it was business-as-usual after the attack. Only hours after the strike on Saturday, footage on Syrian TV showed Assad in a suit and tie working as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience.”
The Syrian military released a statement saying the missile attack “will not deter our armed forces and allied forces from persisting to crush what is left of the armed terrorist groups.” The Syrian army also announced that all rebels who refused to reconcile with the government had been evacuated from Douma, bringing the area under full government control for the first time since 2012.
Meanwhile, U.S. president Donald Trump did not give any concrete indication that he would reverse earlier promises to pull out Washington’s nearly 2,000 troops in Syria from the war-torn country. Commenting on Saturday’s strikes, he said the U.S. was “prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” But he did not say whether this means that U.S. forces would stay in Syria.
However, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley said on Sunday that Washington’s involvement in the country “is not done,” the Associated Press reported.
The ambassador to the United Nations said the U.S. would not leave Syria until three goals were accomplished: The U.S. ensures that chemical weapons are not used in a way that could harm U.S. national interests, the [so-called] Islamic State group is defeated and there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.
For Matar Ismail, a 28-year-old civilian journalist from southern Damascus, who watched as missiles rained down on the research center in Damascus, “the strikes were definitely too late.”
“In military terms, their impact was close to zero,” he said.