On Syria, Chicago-area activists ‘haven’t exhaled yet’

Kelly Gonsalves, Reporter

Almost two weeks after the United States scaled back its military threat against Syria, Chicago-area activists still question Americans’ motives and the country’s next steps.

More than 150 Evanston residents gathered Sept. 9 in front of the office of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), urging her to vote against President Barack Obama’s proposed military action in Syria. Although the congressional vote was put to rest with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s promise to give up his stockpile of chemical weapons, activist leader Dickelle Fonda said peace advocates nationwide “haven’t exhaled yet.”

“We’re certainly not sitting back on our rears and saying, ‘Wow, we solved that one!’ We’re just waiting,” said Fonda, who organized the Evanston protest with the North Shore Coalition for Peace and Justice. “We’ve been around long enough to realize that sometimes not everyone plays by the same rules, including the United States.”

Fonda said the coalition and similar groups worry the U.S. had “another agenda going in” when it first threatened Syria, citing the connection between the war in Iraq and U.S. oil needs. The coalition members are still waiting to see whether ulterior motives may sabotage a diplomatic solution being worked out by the United Nations, she said.

However, Syrian-Americans in Chicago sing a different tune. Eman Sahloul, 21, co-founder of Syrian Orphans, a Chicago-based organization that aims to help child victims of the Syrian civil war, said she doubts Assad will move forward with transitioning his chemical weapons into international hands and thus advocates for immediate U.S. intervention in Syria.

“From an American perspective and from a Syrian perspective, I think it’s in our interests to intervene and get this regime out of power because the chemical weapons are very accessible,” Sahloul said. “Anybody can get their hands on them.”

Sahloul is the daughter of Syria-born parents, and her father narrowly escaped former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s massacres in 1982. Her extended family still lives in Homs, a frequent target of military attacks, and 14 of her family members have been killed in the war.

During the Evanston rally, she and a small group of counter-protestors handed out informational flyers encouraging people to support military strikes in Syria. Activists on both sides of the debate emphasized they will be back on the streets if U.S. makes another move contrary to their interests.

“If it happens again, if the United States pulls out of this, and they back up and have some sort of excuse or reason why they need to bomb, we’ll be out there again,” Fonda said. “We will organize again, just as we did then.”

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