The poison gas attack that killed at least 75 Syrians, including 20 children, in the rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun Tuesday angered members of the Sacramento region’s large Syrian refugee community, with many saying the attack could have been avoided if the U.S. had removed strongman Bashar al-Assad the last time he used nerve gas against his own people.
Several local Syrians acknowledged the complicated reality on the ground in Syria but called for more forceful action from the Trump administration to remove Assad.
“There’s a feeling of outrage as people express their extreme sadness seeing human life lost and children suffocating, but at the same time we have seen this happening again and again,” said Dr. Mohammad Jaber Kabbesh of the Syrian American Council of Northern California. Kabbesh, an internist who hasn’t been able to reach his immediate family in Syria in the wake of the attack, had bitter words for both the Obama and Trump administrations. He said his ancestral homeland was near the gas attack site.
In 2012 President Obama promised a “red line in the sand” against the use of chemical weapons, declaring if it was crossed, the U.S. would take action. But when Assad reportedly used sarin gas on opposition-controlled areas in Ghouta near Damascus in August 2013, killing more than 1,400 people, the Obama administration didn’t act.
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Kabbesh said he was equally frustrated by the Trump administration’s stance on Assad, which included U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley saying last Thursday that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
“Both the government that says things and doesn’t have the will to follow through and the government that signals we have no interest in removing Assad … days before the massacre are putting U.S. citizens and security at risk,” said Kabbesh, an American citizen who arrived in the U.S. in 1997.
“We know Assad is watching and he will do the ugliest things he can get away with,” he said.
Relying on the Russians to police Assad’s chemical arsenal “is not going to bring stability or safety to the U.S,” he added.
Sacramento is home to about 500 Syrian Americans and an equal number of Syrian refugees who’ve arrived in recent years, said Dr. Nabil Majid, a Syrian American from Roseville who said he just spoke to his mother in Aleppo, nearly 50 miles from the site of the gas attack.
“My mom said it’s heartbreaking, it’s horrible and these crimes need to stop but the Syrian people are powerless, they are hungry, they are tired and don’t know what to do,” Majid said. “The Syrian people are willing to fight for their own land if we support them, but they don’t have electricity, running water, clean water, sewage, hospitals or schools. They’re deprived of the basic necessities of life and can’t fight on two fronts.”
Majid, who also belongs to the Syrian American Medical Society, echoed Kabbesh’s assertion that Obama and Trump share blame for Assad launching the gas attack. He said the medical society is raising funds and collecting supplies for victims.
“Obama should have stood by his promise when Assad crossed the red line and done whatever it takes to stop him from doing these acts,” Majid said. “You need to move Assad out. The time is right for people to come together, form a unity government and make Syria a model for the Middle East.
“The Trump administration needs to pressure Moscow to get rid of Assad so a unity government can save what’s left of Syria, help the refugees come home, rebuild their lives and move on,” he said.
He added that while Trump has said ISIS is his top priority, “the people in Syria are absolutely against terrorists and will never allow them.”
He compared the situation in Syria to Libya, where the U.S. intervened and helped get rid of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in six months.
“Syria has no oil, that’s why they feel they were abandoned and left to Assad’s slaughtering machine,” Majid said. “Syria is the only country that has no resources worth fighting over. That’s why most Syrians are frustrated.”
Kirt Lewis, director of the Sacramento office of the refugee resettlement agency World Relief, said Tuesday’s gas attack underscores the need for the U.S. to provide a safe haven for Syrian refugees, who number more than 13 million worldwide. The Trump administration has issued two executive orders suspending all Syrians from entering the U.S., although federal judges have blocked both of them.
The administration has also capped the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. at 50,000 a year, while under the Obama administration, the refugee inflow averaged about 75,000 refugees a year with another 110,000 planned for the current fiscal year.
“At a time of unprecedented displacement, we fully recognize that resettlement is not going to be the primary solution, but for hundreds of thousands of people it’s their only choice,” said Lewis.
Sacramento received 275 Syrian refugees in the last fiscal year ending in September and has received 100 so far more than half way through the current fiscal year, Lewis said.
Last year, 1,450 Syrian refugees resettled in California, while 573 have been resettled in the state so far this fiscal year, Lewis said..