Iranian Reactions to the American Attack on Syria

Raz Zimmt argues that Iranians are opposed to the chemical attack in Syria but are doubtful of U.S President Donald Trump's policy.

On the night of April 6-7, a US attack on a Syrian Air Force base in the western Syrian city of Homs provoked mixed reactions on Iranian social networking sites (SNS). These reactions reflected the Iranian public’s complex attitude towards the ongoing crisis in Syria. Some users considered the attack justified, given the preceding gas attack in the Idlib district attributed to the Assad regime. Others claimed that the American action exposed Western hypocrisy vis-à-vis the Middle East.

In the days leading up to the American attack in Syria, Iranian social networks were strongly critical of the chemical attack on Idlib, although users disagreed on the identity of the perpetrator. While some blamed President Assad, others claimed he would have no interest in using chemical weapons, considering his significant gains in the war. Regardless, Iranian criticism of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war is not a new phenomenon. This sensitivity draws on Iranian victimization in chemical attacks by Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

The chemical attack in Idlib reignited criticism of Iran’s continued support for the Assad regime. “What a sorry country we are, supporting those who drop chemical bombs on the heads of civilians when we ourselves were the victims of such a crime,” wrote one user.[1]However, this was not the first time Iranian intervention in Syria has provoked public criticism, primarily from the reformist camp. Significant criticism was voiced following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in the summer of 2013, and after the Syrian refugee crisis worsened. Although this criticism has no practical effect on Iran’s policy toward Syria, it reflects segments of the Iranian public's dissatisfaction with their country's official policies.

Against the backdrop of the chemical attack in Idlib, one can understand Iranian expressions of support for the American military response. Many stressed that although they do not support President Donald Trump, his response was necessary and justified, especially after eight years of the Obama administration's disregard for the Damascus regime's crimes. A number of users opposed Iranian and Western human rights activists' distaste for military action, arguing that the Assad regime's murderous campaign against its citizens justifies punitive action. These users stressed that the president of Syria, not the United States, was responsible for the ongoing war in Syria. From their perspective, if Assad had agreed to hold free elections four years ago, he could have prevented the ongoing crisis and bloodshed.[2] Some users supported even stronger action than that taken by the US, including bombing Assad’s palace. They claimed that only eliminating Assad’s regime could end the Syrian civil war, and limited military action would not prevent him from continuing the massacre. [3]

In addition to human rights activists' principled reservations about the military option, others questioned its effectiveness. They argued that military intervention would not resolve the crisis, and might prolong the civil war by leading to its escalation. As proof, they cited the US military intervention in Iraq, which plunged the country into a bloody civil war. These users argued that it is necessary to employ alternative means to resolve the crisis and assist its victims. “For the price of 50 Tomahawk missiles, it would be possible to buy enough food to feed 2,000 families of war victims in Syria for a year,” wrote one user.[4]

US policy was also criticized for being tainted by political considerations. Users castigated the US administration for disregarding the daily horrors taking place in the Middle East, such as the deaths of hundreds of Yemeni children in Saudi aerial bombardments.[5] Many recalled the lack of a US response to Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, and the unabated US support for Saddam Hussein. “Where were the American cruise missiles when Saddam Hussein attacked cities and villages in Iran with chemical weapons?” tweeted one user.[6] Critics claimed that US policy in the Middle East proves that the attack in Syria was not an expression of genuine concern for Syrian citizens, but rather of Trump’s desire to improve his status at home. Many mentioned Trump’s opposition to American intervention in Syria after Assad's first chemical attack against the rebels in the summer of 2013. Others pointed out the hypocrisy of taking military action in Syria to supposedly to defend innocent civilians, while issuing a presidential order banning Syrian refugees from entering the US. [7]

Criticism was also directed against Russia, which despite its support for the Syrian regime, neither prevented nor condemned the American attack. Some Iranian users saw Russia's response as evidence of Moscow's unreliability, and of the necessity for Iranian self-sufficiency in the security sector.[8]This position expresses the deep suspicion that characterizes the Iranian attitude towards Russia. For example, this attitude was evident in the sharp internal criticism voiced in August 2016, after Iranian authorities issued a permit allowing Russian fighter planes to use the military airport in the Iranian city of Madan to attack targets in Syria.

On the margins of the debate, several users discussed the implications of America's military action on Iran's upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for May 19. Some users, especially among President Rouhani’s supporters, claimed that Trump’s military action demonstrated the need to re-elect moderate President Rouhani to prevent an escalation in the Iran-US confrontation. "When Trump is firing missiles at Syria, we must not elect a radical Iranian president," tweeted a journalist for the reformist newspaper Etemad. [9] In response, an opponent of Rouhani ridiculed the journalist, claiming that his remarks were like those of a child willing to surrender to his classmates’ extortion and pay them off, as long as they did not beat him. [10]

The reactions on Iranian SNS to the American attack in Syria indicate the strength of Iranians’ opposition to the use chemical weapons, stemming from historical trauma. This opposition generates harsh public criticism of the Syrian regime, and sometimes even a willingness to justify the American military response. At the same time, the discourse reflects a response to the Trump era shift in American Middle East policy, which Iranians fear may lead to escalation between Iran and the US, or even military confrontation. These events afford a glimpse into the Iranian public’s complex response to Iran’s military involvement in Syria – an involvement which occasionally provokes public criticism, especially when events expose the cruelty of the Syrian regime supported by their country.