By Sophie Haber and Ryann Perlstein
Editor’s note: This story includes graphic images and quotes that could be offensive or disturbing to some readers.
LOS ANGELES — Passion, concern and conflicting opinions rose among high school students in Los Angeles after the U.S. military struck the Syrian government’s Shayrat air base in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians on April 4.
Some thought that the strikes came too late to make a difference in Syria’s civil war, now entering its seventh year.
But others applauded President Donald Trump for acting after Syria crossed the “red line” of chemical warfare.
“I think that it is very telling about our newly-elected president that despite the fact that the Syrian civil war has been going on for six years now, since 2011, and there has been an abundance of horrendous attacks on the Syrian people, this specific attack recently led for the U.S. to intervene,” said Hattie Rogovin, 16, a student at Marlborough School for Girls in Los Angeles.
“Although this attack was horrible, it didn’t target as many people as other attacks have within Syria,” Rogovin said.
Robert Brooks, 16, of Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California, disagreed, saying that a shift in policy and concrete action was necessary.
“Some people will cite that this strike is only a part of the Trump warmongering agenda, revealing his fickle nature as he took a matter of days to switch his opinion,” Brooks remarked.
“Despite this, one thing remains valid,” he added. “The line drawing and diplomacy of the Obama era did not work.”
Last week’s attack on rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria killed an estimated 80 people and sickened hundreds more.
A tweet from the Aleppo Media Center’s Media Foundation captured the terrible aftermath:
— مركز حلب الإعلامي (@AleppoAMC) April 4, 2017
In a speech to an emergency meeting of the UN security council in New York the day after the attack, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also showed photos of children killed in the attack.
“Yesterday morning, we awoke to pictures, to children foaming at the mouth, suffering convulsions, being carried in the arms of desperate parents. We saw rows of lifeless bodies. Some still in diapers. Some with the visible scars of a chemical weapons attack,” she said.
“Look at those pictures,” she said. “We cannot close our eyes to those pictures.”
The United Nations estimates that since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 people have died, more than 5 million Syrians have fled their country and 6.3 million people have been displaced internationally.
In August 2012, amid rising concerns that Syria would use chemical weapons against its own people, former President Barack Obama said that such a move by Syria would cross “a red line” that “would change my calculus” on using military force.
However, following an attack on the Syrian city of Damascus in August 2013 in which Syrian government forces used the deadly chemical sarin, killing an estimated 1,300 people, Obama sought but was denied congressional approval for air strikes.
Instead, the U.S. and Russia brokered an agreement in which Syria agreed to give up its chemical stockpile in exchange for a halt on U.S. military action.
Despite assertions by U.S. and other Western nations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for ordering last week’s attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Tuesday for the United Nations to investigate the source; the comments came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was landing in Moscow for meetings with Russian officials.
Rogovin said she is worried about the recent shift to a more militaristic approach.
Although sanctions were in place, the Obama administration did not launched missiles against Syria after the country initiated chlorine attacks in Aleppo, nor when Assad, with the help of Russian warplanes, pummeled eastern Aleppo in an attempt to regain territory lost to rebel forces.
“The U.S. never once led a direct attack against the Assad regime in Syria (under Obama), but it has been only a few months since Trump was inaugurated, and already there is a newly acquired level of tension,” Rogovin said. “Trump broke down the direct attack barrier that Obama hadn’t crossed, and I think that there is a lot to be frightened by right now, especially with Trump as our president.”
Brooks disagreed, saying the Trump administration’s authoritative response will send a strong message to both Assad and Putin. But he encouraged Trump to go one step further.
“We as the U.S. must accept a greater influx of refugees from affected areas,” Brooks said, adding, “The missile strike may help solve some of the issues in Syria, but it still ignores the roughly 13.5 million people who have been forced out of their homes.
“If Trump wants to prove that he genuinely cares instead of making a simple power play, then he must accept refugees,” Brooks said.
Trump has signed two executive orders to halt refugee resettlement in the U.S., which includes refugees from Syria.
“He can’t say that he feels bad for the Syrian children but then also not let them into our country,” agreed Wil LoCurto, 16, of Crespi Carmelite High School in Los Angeles.
Trump’s decision to strike Syria came without approval from Congress or the United Nations, prompting questions of legality on both a national and international level.
Under international law, the attack appears to be illegal. The United Nations Charter recognizes two reasons for use of force on another country’s soil without their consent: the permission of the UN Security Council, or a claim of self-defense. The missile strike was not approved by the Security Council, and was justified by the Defense Department as an intention “to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again” — not self-defense for the United States.
Although some of Trump’s supporters argue that as commander-in-chief, Trump has the authority to order a strike without congressional approval, the need for such approval is under debate, according to The Washington Post.
Some members of Congress say they must authorize further developments.
“If we decide to do military in Syria, he really needs to come to Congress,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to CNN. “In regards to an attack against the Assad government, there is no authorization.”
Meanwhile, students and their families are also worried about this issue.
“My parents are really concerned about his lack of congressional approval,” said Lucas Gelfond, 15, of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles.
Still, Brooks thinks the U.S. government needs to take more action.
“Although the legality of Trump’s recent missile strike in Syria is lacking, I believe that it was a necessary action in order to help end conflict in the area,” Brooks said.
—Featured photo: A Syrian child receives treatment at a small hospital in the town of Maaret al-Noman following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017. Warplanes carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed at least 35 people including several children, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms. Mohamed Al-Bakour/AFP/Getty Images photo via Camayak.