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In Syria, The News Of U.S. Missile Strike Is Greeted With Ambivalence

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Syrian residents of Khan Shaykhun hold signs and pictures on Friday during a protest condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town earlier this week.

In the early hours of Friday morning, the U.S. struck a Syrian airbase in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack on Tuesday by Syrian government forces in the town of Khan Shaykhun.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it's still establishing the facts behind the deaths of dozens of people. Syrians on the ground have mixed feelings about what the U.S. strikes might mean for their future.

The barrage of Tomahawk missiles came as surprise for many Syrians, whether allied or opposed to President Bashar Assad. This is the first time the U.S. has intentionally bombed government forces over the course of the country's six-year civil war.

That might seem like it would be welcome news to those opposed to Assad, especially in the area where the apparent chemical attack took place. But that's not how it was being talked about today.

Samer al-Hussein lives just a few miles outside Khan Shaykhun, the town that produced the images that horrified the world — of children and adults choking due to apparent chemical exposure. He visited the town shortly after Tuesday's attack.

Hussein spoke to NPR after attending Friday prayers.

"The imam of the mosque said the U.S. strikes were a joke," he said. "They were just to save face. They were strikes that were not fruitful — because today, Russia is still killing [Syrian] civilians."

What he meant is people are getting killed by conventional airstrikes carried out by Syrian — and even more powerful Russian — warplanes every day.

Hussein said the imam's sermon focused more on the importance of education than on the U.S. attack, and urged parents to home-school their children on the many days when airstrikes make going to class impossible, to prevent an ignorant next generation.

Hussein says he and others are skeptical that the U.S. is truly concerned about their welfare.

"People are worried that [the attack is] just to make some media noise," he said, "that this was a one-time U.S. strike on the Shayrat airport, that they won't strike again, and the reckoning has ended."

Another resident of the area is Muznah al-Jundi. She runs a woman's center in the rebel-held northwest, which recently cancelled its programming due to an uptick in airstrikes that received little international attention.

Reached by phone, she said people are unsure what to make of the U.S. missile strikes.

"Honestly," she said, "our feelings today are mixed between happiness and sadness."

Jundi felt relieved that the Shayrat airport, from where Syrian planes took off to attack Khan Shaykhun, has been damaged. But she's also upset over yet more destruction.

"As Syrians," she said, "we never wanted the situation to get to this point. We didn't want it to get to this level where Syria is being completely destroyed. But unfortunately, this is the point we've reached."

She says that for this to be helpful, it needs to be part of a full U.S. strategy toward Syria, not just a one-time event.

The Syrian military, for its part, condemned the U.S. strikes as an act of aggression. It said the damage will only make it harder for the Syrian air force to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups.

The airbase the U.S. struck does provide support for government troops fighting ISIS. But Jundi knows when the government uses the word "terrorist" it refers to all of Assad's opponents.

"The regime made a statement today that they're fighting terrorists," she said. "So this makes us more afraid.

"We're tired inside. We're tired of planes. We want to live a normal life."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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