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Article posted: 9/7/2013 8:00 AM

Suburban Syrians urge intervention to prevent further bloodshed

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"I don't want America to bomb Syria," Lina Sergie Attar says, but she believes a U.S. military strike, while undesirable, may be the only way to prevent further civilian bloodshed.

Her comments were echoed by other suburban Syrian-Americans who are conflicted about how far the United States should go with military intervention in Syria but who say something needs to be done now.

Attar, an architect from Lake Forest, and her husband, Aladean Attar, were born and raised in the United States. The couple founded the humanitarian aid organization Karam Foundation to help refugees and those displaced internally by the violence in Syria.

Though no one from the couple's immediate family has been killed in the violence, many relatives have lost their homes, jobs and "everything that they built over a lifetime," Attar said.

Attar said her father, Aly Sergie, a prominent ophthalmologist educated in the United States, had returned to Syria in 1982 to serve his country, but a year ago violence in their hometown of Aleppo forced him to flee.

"He left his office, his house, everything he owned and came back to the States with two suitcases and my mother," she said. "Now, he works as an ophthalmologist in Libertyville. It's very painful for them to have to leave. It's heartbreaking, but at the same time we are very grateful. We are still much more lucky than so many Syrians that we know."

Attar said Syrians have watched their homeland disintegrate over the past two years since the uprising began, and while it's hard for them to ask for foreign intervention, a growing majority within that country and here in the United States is calling for action.

"They believe America can protect," Attar said. "The country has been destroyed . 100,000 people have been killed (according to United Nations). We want to stop the bloodshed. This is a regime that is literally gassing its own people."

The Obama administration has been trying to rally international support for a military strike, citing what it says is convincing evidence of the Assad government's use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

The most recent chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, killed more than 1,400 people, including 426 children, according to American intelligence agencies. The Obama administration has called it the deadliest nerve gas attack in decades.

Yet, despite condemnation of the attack by the U.S., the Arab League, the European Union and other countries, the United Nations has not sanctioned a punitive attack against Assad, and world leaders have urged America not to go it alone.

Community leaders have been calling on Syrian-Americans to urge their congressmen and senators to support Obama's stance on a military strike.

"Without U.S. intervention, things will get worse," said Zaher Sahloul of Burr Ridge, ex-chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

Sahloul, a critical care specialist at Christ Advocate Medical Center in Oak Lawn, is board president of the Syrian American Medical Society, whose members have run medical missions to Syrian refugee camps along the borders of Turkey and Jordan since the 2011 revolution. The group supports several field hospitals inside Syria, providing local doctors with medical supplies and training.

"What we're seeing is basically a disintegration of the public health system in Syria," Sahloul said. "We have 2 million refugees, 5 million internally displaced people. We are talking about destruction of the whole nation of Syria."

The refugee situation alone has put a lot of stress on neighboring countries.

"That is a fragile situation. It is not going to be contained in Syria," Sahloul said.

Sahloul said his group has recorded roughly 24 smaller-scale chemical attacks since December 2012 -- the first was in the old city of Homs where Sahloul's family lives -- with patients exhibiting similar symptoms to the victims of the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus.

"We reported it to the State Department and sent them videos. All of what we have documented and reported is consistent with exposure to nerve gas," Sahloul said. "Our inability and hesitance to respond to the war crimes of the regime allowed it to do more mayhem and use different weapons ... but it's never too late. Even if we intervened right now, that would be positive to many Syrians."

Sahloul recognizes the decision for military intervention is not an easy one for the United States to make.

"Everyone looks at the U.S. as the country that will lead the international community to end the crisis," he said. "This is what my family is looking for. Whatever intervention our country is contemplating right now, hopefully, it will lead to political transition and force the Syrian regime to stop killing civilians."

A tough choice

Ghassan Abboud, a dentist from Burr Ridge, said that while he doesn't support Assad's government, he is against a U.S. military strike.

"I still believe there is room for diplomacy, if the international players decided to do so," he said. "I'm against violence, and more military actions means more suffering to the innocent people. Unfortunately, the guns have silenced the voices of peace. I guarantee you 80 percent of the people don't care who governs at this point, if they can live in peace and dignity."

Sahloul said there is still some support for Assad within Syria and here in the United States because no one is sure what leaders or parties will follow if the regime is ousted. But most people have lost trust and confidence in the government due to his poor leadership, he said.

The Syrian people are fighting for the same ideals that Americans hold dear, said Ammar Hamad, 52, an oncologist from Burr Ridge who has lived here for 26 years.

"When I came to this country ... I walked out of O'Hare and I said, 'Wow, this is where I belong because it's the land of freedom,'" Hamad said. "This is why people went against the (Assad) regime."

Hamad's family lives in Goutah, a suburb of Damascus that was bombarded in the Aug. 21 chemical attack.

"Fortunately, they were out of that area when it happened," he said.

Hamad's mother and a sister have since fled the country and now live with him. He still has three brothers and a sister in Syria who have been displaced from their homes and fled to other towns.

"The regime encircled the whole area, attacking left and right without differentiation between the freedom fighter army and the regular citizens," he said. "They have no mercy for anyone."

Getting basic medical supplies and equipment to treat the injured has been a challenge.

Hamad said he has trouble contacting family members to find out what's happening on the ground because cellphone and satellite phone service is so unreliable.

"I truly believe that more than 95 percent are the regular Syrian moderate freedom fighters. ... They want their country back," he said.

Attar, the Lake Forest architect, said the United Nations should impose a no-fly zone over Syria's "liberated areas" and that the U.S. should ground or destroy the Syrian air force to give opposition rebels a fighting chance.

"This is not Iraq. It's not Afghanistan," Attar said. "Syrian people don't want boots on the ground. Americans don't want more boots on the ground. This is a more targeted attack and strike to disable the Syrian military."

Her husband, Aladean, a Libertyville dentist and an officer in the Navy Reserve, has run dental missions at Syrian refugee camps. Attar herself has traveled to Syria three times since the revolution to help refugees near the Turkish border and create an arts and sports program for internally displaced children, she said.

"There are so many organizations that people can help volunteer and donate," she said.

"No matter what your stance is on this (military strike) vote, there are things that people should and must do for Syrians."

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