A diverse group of more than 50 students, veterans, professors and Ithacans gathered Tuesday evening at Cornell’s Ho Plaza to protest the United States’ firing of missiles last week onto a Syrian air base in retaliation for what the United States said was Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Protesters differed in their views on how to effectively resist President Donald Trump’s most significant international action, but all were outraged by the launch of 59 tomahawk missiles from Navy destroyers on Thursday night, which struck a Syrian Air Force base near Homs, a city in western Syria.
“Assad is a genocidal ruler who has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians [and] who is basically the largest killer in this war,” Lylla Younes ’17 said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Saying no to U.S. intervention is not saying yes to Assad,” Younes said.
The U.S. strike killed six soldiers and nine civilians, The New York Times reported, citing Syrian officials and news reports. It was the first direct military action the United States has taken against Assad’s administration since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and “was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again,” a Pentagon spokesman said in a statement.
Shortly before the protest on Tuesday, the White House released a four-page National Security Council report on the chemical attack, concluding that the Syrian regime used the nerve agent sarin against civilians on April 4, killing between 50 and 100 Syrians and injuring hundreds more.
Many at the rally in front of The Cornell Store said they saw an irony in the fact that Trump is both attempting to reduce the number of refugees the United States accepts and bombing a country that nearly 5 million people have fled in six years, with many more displaced within its borders.
“Countries like Egypt, where I’m from, they’ve taken in over 1 million” refugees, said Walaa Horan, co-founder of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, who noted that Trump wants to accept 50,000 refugees and that Egypt “is small enough to fit in Texas.”
“This is not a Trump-[Vice President Mike] Pence war, this is not a Republican war, this is across the board — Republicans, Democrats — we have been at war for over a decade with different countries,” she said. “This is not a political party thing.”
Horan encouraged protesters to engage regularly with people who harbor opposing political views. That recommendation contradicted some protesters’ opinion that people should not cooperate in any way with Trump or his supporters, but Horan’s statement brought cheers from a majority of the crowd.
“Getting into screaming matches with people who support Trump doesn’t help anything,” Horan said. “Get into a conversation and ask why.”
Young children ran around Ho Plaza as the sky turned purple and protesters chanted using a megaphone in between speakers.
“No missile strikes, no Muslim ban, no fascist U.S.A.,” they chanted as some passersby spontaneously joined the protest, which was marked with several large banners held by protesters or erected between light posts.
Two veterans attended the protest at well, saying they both became disillusioned with the U.S. military while they served abroad.
“I left as a conscientious objector because I didn’t want to be part of the invasion,” said Michael Blake, who served in Iraq in 2003 and traveled from Binghamton for the protest.
Ithacan Louis DeBenedette said he has been “against every invasion since” Vietnam, where he served in the military before coming out against the war.
Christopher Hanna ’18, co-facilitator for Amnesty International at Cornell, organized the rally with members of the national Refuse Fascism group after he noticed a lack of political representation for a Democratic, anti-war constituency.
“I was really disturbed by the airstrike and the fact that it represents an escalation of war in Syria and an escalation in U.S. participation in the conflict,” Hanna said.
“It’s not like we’re rallying just against this singular event,” he said of the strike in Syria. “We’re rallying against the political culture and political establishment that legitimizes these kinds of things.”
Morgan Walsh ’16, a volunteer touring the country with Refuse Fascism in an attempt to gain support for the organization and “drive out the Trump-Pence regime,” said she found leading Democrats’ comments disappointing in the days after the U.S. missile strike.
“I think people are in a place of confusion,” she said. “What they’re hearing from the media and from the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans is that this was the right thing to do and the only issue with Trump’s military action … was that he didn’t seek Congressional approval first.”
Prof. Elyse Semerdjian has been teaching under the Cornell University Society for the Humanities Fellowship this year and said the United States is waging multiple wars without congressional debate or approval.
“You’d have to go 16 years back to find a debate and authorization,” she said, referring to the Authorization of the Use of Military Force passed days after Sept. 11, 2001.
Semerdjian’s son, Abi Shamoun, 6, poked his head out from behind a large banner nearby as the professor concluded her speech.
Abi, she said, has been to about 10 protests in his six-and-a-half years.
Younes called on the rally attendees to focus on those who are living in Syria.
“It’s really important from out here — outside of Syria — to center the narrative around the stories of the people in Syria, the people who can’t be here with us right now,” she said. “Their stories are the ones that matter.”
Younes said her Syrian-American identity meant that she was speaking “as an Arab from the diaspora” and “not as a Syrian who lives in Syria … not as a Syrian who went to my soccer game and never made it home.”
The senior also pushed back against what she said is a common view that the only two options for improving Syria are either U.S. military intervention or indefinite rule under Assad.
People should instead recognize both that Assad is an “illegitimate ruler,” she said, “and at the same time that the U.S. is not a legitimate power that can come and do anything legitimate in the region.”