Syrian refugees in Edmonton feel helpless as war escalates

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Syrian refugees in Edmonton feel helpless as war escalates

As scenes of devastation continue to flood out of Syria, Maher Istanbouly struggles to cope half a world away.

"I'm very sad, I can't sleep."

He and his wife Amal Kenena arrived in Edmonton as Syrian refugees in December.

They're originally from a community called Salakin, which was hit by an attack one day after Tuesday's horrific chemical attack by the Syrian government.

"It's not enough. You must stop killing everybody," he said.

"It's too hard for me because I have my parents, my brother, my sister in my country and they are in danger because Assad everyday tries to kill them," said Kenena. "We need more from America to help the Syrians. I can't help anybody in my country. I just watch. It's hard for me. I can't help them"

Maher's brother Taher Istanbouly feels differently. 

"What will change in this game? Nothing," he said, shaking his head.

He sponsored the couple's relocation to Edmonton after arriving in Canada himself 11 years ago.

He's now the president of the Syrian Canadian Friendship Club in Edmonton. 

He doesn't trust the Americans or their actions.

"How can I trust Trump if he's pushing his own people, the American people — Muslim, or black people — they're pushing them out of the country? How you can be good for me and not good for your own people?" he said.

"It's two faces — different faces — which is not right. So I don't trust him."

International pressure

"The U.S. and its allies had to have some sort of response to this chemical attack," said Reza Hasmath, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, who specializes in ethnic conflict.

He said international pressure meant the United States didn't have a choice but to take action.

"This is a crime against humanity, it's a crime against just normal decency shall we say, ignoring the international legal obligations. And so there had to be a measured response," he said.

"This signals to the Syrian government, and any other actors who are going to use chemical weapons on civilians, is that it is frowned upon and that it is deplorable and should be deterred strongly," he said.

Hasmath said it's likely the Assad regime was testing the new Trump administration with its blatant disregard for international laws.

He's not optimistic the U.S. bombings will actually help end the civil war, citing the multitude of factions involved.

Foremost, he said, this is a war between Syrians, the Syrian government and the opposition forces.

He said it's also a proxy war between Iran and Russia, which are backing the Syrian government, and the United States, which is backing the opposition forces. 

"I'm pessimistic because after the smoke clears here, there's still a conflict in play that's beyond this proxy war," he said.

"The Syrians and Syrian opposition forces and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are still major players there. It's a game of international relations being played out. So the United States has responded. Russia has responded in turn by suggesting this has heavily strained the relationship with the U.S. And meanwhile in Syria these atrocities, the war, is still continuing."

Islamic state stalemate

Hasmath said the presence of the Islamic State in Syria is the main sticking point in this six-year conflict. 

"If ISIL becomes reduced in its power and its influence in the region, in Syria in particular, I think it would be easier to resolve the Syrian and opposition forces' issues through a political solution," he said.

"If we can eliminate that as a variable, we can finally be optimistic moving forward."  

Hasmath said the Syrians he has spoken with are both appalled and saddened by what is happening there. And, like the Istanboulys, they want to see the international community do more to help.

"These are people who've suffered over the last six years. Half the pre-war population has been displaced and they feel as though many of the people who should come to their aid are not coming to their aid," he said.

"Something as deplorable as these chemical attacks should never have occurred."