WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Syrian-Americans worried for their families abroad as President Trump announced Friday night that he had ordered airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a coordinated attack with the U.K. and France.
Trump said the targeted airstrikes were intended to deter a chemical weapons attack like the one that took place in Douma last weekend, killing dozens of people. But in New Jersey, some Syrian-Americans feared that the airstrikes would lead to more civilian deaths and a widening of the conflict in Syria.
"As soon as Trump came up, I put the television on and I've been frozen sitting here with tears in my eyes," said Huda Shanawani of Millburn, who came to the United States in 1969. "I don't know what to do."
Shanawani said she had been unable to reach her family in Damascus on Friday night via phone or social media and that she felt "angry" and "disappointed."
"I don't want any more civilians to die," she said. "Enough is enough. A million people already died. I do not want to see Damascus as Baghdad."
Syrian-Americans have been fiercely divided over the Assad regime since the outset of war in 2011, so it was no surprise that they were also divided in their response to U.S. airstrikes. Some welcomed deeper U.S. involvement on Friday, hoping it would lead to the ouster of a leader they say is a dictator responsible for the mass killings of his own people.
Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian-born mayor of Prospect Park, was glad to hear Trump's announcement but said that hitting chemical weapons facilities did not go far enough. Khairullah is active with the Syrian American Council, a group that has called for the United States to destroy Assad's air force to prevent more fly-over bombings.
"While it's a welcome move, that doesn't mean Assad will not continue to kill Syrians by using other illegal weapons, such as napalm, cluster bombs and white phosphorus," Khairullah said.
Asked about the risk of confrontation with Russia, an ally of Syria, Khairullah said the United States should consider potential conflicts. But, he added, "we see the suffering of the Syrian people on a daily basis."
"Assad as a person and his henchmen need to feel they are a target, if they continue this pain and suffering of the people," he said.
Interviewed earlier in the week, Fehmi Khairullah of Hawthorne, who is not related to the mayor, said he did not believe Trump would take strong action against Assad, predicting it would be "another air show or missile show."
“If really our president would like to do something about Syria, he should stop showing off and stop the empty threatening of Assad,” said Khairullah, who left Syria in 1992.
But Ghias Moussa, who heads the New Jersey and New York chapters of the Syrian American Forum, a group opposed to U.S. intervention, said the United States should stop trying to push for regime change.
“We don’t think that killing more innocent people in Syria by bombing them will rectify what has happened, whether it was done by the Assad regime or not,” said Moussa, who called for an investigation into the chemical attack.
“Americans should not change regimes around the world to get somebody we like and fight people we don’t like,” he said, calling for a peaceful resolution among fighting factions.
Moussa is among a faction of Syrian-Americans who supported Trump for president because he had previously said he was opposed to military intervention in the country.
Others noted that diplomatic and military interventions fell flat over the years as atrocities piled up. President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons was his “red line,” but he did not intervene despite a reported chemical weapon attack in 2013.
Trump ordered airstrikes at a small air base last year in response to a chemical attack, but the strike did little little to dent Syrian government air operations.
Shanawani expressed concern over clashes among nations that have become closely involved in the Syrian conflict, including the United States, Russia, Iran and Israel. Russia, which has provided military support to Assad, has warned of “serious repercussions” if the United States should strike Syria.
Shanawani said it would be better "if they sit down and agree with each other and talk about it." She added, "This is a war between superpowers taking place in Syria. It’s a lot bigger than we think.”