Syrian journalist pleads for help via Skype feed

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

A small group crowded around a laptop in Oakland's Schenley Plaza on Wednesday to listen to a Syrian journalist plead for the United States to help topple President Bashar Assad's regime and end a bloody civil war.

“You cannot ignore what is happening to us and say it is not your concern,” Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 52, said via Skype from what he described as a Syrian hideout.

Yet elsewhere in the Pittsburgh plaza, including neighboring tables in the pavilion next to Conflict Kitchen, hundreds of people did just that.

“It's just a very American scene,” Leah Friedman, 20, of Lawrenceville said, scanning the plaza as people sat on the sun-drenched lawn or in the shaded pavilion, poring over books, lunches, electronic tablets and smartphones. One person threw a Frisbee to a dog.

Friedman, an urban studies major at the University of Pittsburgh who listened in on the Skype call for about five minutes, described the situation in Syria as “terrifying” but said she wasn't informed enough to say whether she supports U.S. military action.

Two national polls released this week show weak support from Americans. Almost six in 10 oppose missile strikes against Assad's forces, and 36 percent are in favor, according an ABC News/Washington Post survey. A Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent oppose a strike, and 29 percent are in favor.

“I think the general public is tired, and you're getting a lot of fatigue. Americans have been in armed conflict for longer than a decade. It's a tough thing to deal with,” said Dan Law of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

Talk of intervening has ramped up since Aug. 21, when President Obama said Syria used chemical weapons in an attack against its people, killing more than 1,400. More than 100,000 people have died in clashes in 2 12 years.

“It's very frustrating,” said Syrian-American Dr. Basel Termanini, 53, of Moon. “Syrians have been asking for help for more than two years. This is the unknown war.”

The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative policy group, said support is lagging because the United States hasn't gained broad support from allies, and the administration hasn't clearly articulated the national security interest that was threatened by the Aug. 21 attack.

South Side-based Shoutside Media organized the event at Schenley Plaza, broadcasting the Skype call over speakers and a projector screen. A Syrian-American who acted as translator during the call asked not to be identified because he feared retribution against relatives in Syria, including a brother.

About a half-dozen people asked questions over an hour.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or

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