April 7, 2017 / 3:32 PM / 4 months ago

In divided Syria, U.S. strike both welcomed and condemned

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Polarised by years of civil war, Syrians were split on Friday over a U.S. strike on a government airbase, with those in rebel-held areas cautiously welcoming it but Damascus residents decrying it as Western aggression.

The cruise missile strike near the city of Homs early in the day came in response to what Washington and its allies said was a chemical weapons attack this week by Syrian forces. Damascus has strongly denied using chemical weapons.

Some residents of Idlib province, where the chemical attack took place killing scores of people, said they hoped the U.S. strike would weaken Assad's government. "The American strike was good, it's positive - we support any strike against the Syrian regime," 29-year-old Alaa al-Zir said.

"We hope there will be more strikes - and other action - to follow ... so the revolutionaries can advance further and these massacres against civilians can stop," he said.

Another man, Qadi Hajj Qadur, said the strike was likely too little, too late from the United States under new President Donald Trump, but that it was still a positive development and signaled hope for an end to the conflict.

"It's been seven years and we've experienced killing and they (the international community) didn't impose a no-fly zone, they didn't do anything.

"Now America has come and wants to defend us. Is Trump a friend? I don't know. But hopefully something good will come from him, and there will be a (peace) agreement, and this corrupt regime which slaughtered people can be gone."

Syria's opposition has long urged the creation of a no-fly zone or provision of anti-aircraft weapons to rebel groups, and criticised what it saw as U.S. inaction under Barack Obama.

Trump's decision to launch missiles at a Syrian government target marks a dramatic departure and was welcomed by the opposition, who called for further strikes.

Syria's government controls most of the west of the country including its largest population centres, but rebels still hold Idlib province as a stronghold, with pockets of control in other areas including outside Damascus.

The Damascus government said the U.S. strike was "rash" and an act of "flagrant aggression", but did not expect a bigger escalation.

In an interview with the Lebanese TV station al-Mayadeen, Assad aide Bouthaina Shaaban said any Syrian who welcomed the strike was a traitor.

DAMASCENES DEFIANT

Damascus residents struck a defiant tone, echoing the government's vow to escalate the pace of its attacks on insurgents and to win back the whole country. Others said the U.S. attack was no surprise and vowed to stand up to Washington.

"Talk in the U.N. Security Council about (Syria using) chemical weapons is lies, and Syria knows this. They just wanted to have an excuse to strike," said a Damascus fireman, who did not give his name.

"It doesn't make a great difference anyway. What the militants (rebels) have done to our country has more of an effect than Tomahawk missiles."

"The blood of martyrs is what waters the earth of the country. Either we die, or we win," he said.

Abu Haidara, a media student, said Syria should strike back.

"The Syrian government should ... wage a war with them - with any dog who thinks he can attack Syria or the army or anyone and violate its sovereignty," he said.

Reporting by Reuters visuals journalists; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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