Syrian refugees urge Kerry, US to take action

Associated Press
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pauses while speaking during a joint press conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, unseen, on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Amman. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday won Arab League backing for his effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, raising hopes for a quick resumption in the stalled negotiations. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

ZAATARI, Jordan (AP) — Angry Syrian refugees urged U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday to do more to help opponents of President Bashar Assad's government, venting frustration at perceived inaction on their behalf.

Visiting the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, Kerry met six representatives of its 115,000-strong population, all of whom appealed to him to create no-fly zones and set up humanitarian safe havens inside Syria. The Obama administration has boosted assistance to the Syrian opposition but has noted grave complications and astronomic costs in enforcing no-fly zones or protecting the opposition on Syrian soil.

In Jordan on his sixth trip to the Middle East as secretary of state, Kerry flew to the Zaatari camp northeast of Amman, about 12 kilometers from the Syrian border. He was accompanied by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Kerry, who spent his time at the camp's administrative base and did not tour the living quarters for security reasons, met with the six refugees who all appealed for the U.S. and others to do more militarily to support the opposition. During the 40-minute meeting, they expressed their anger at what they called inaction and indifference on the part of the international community.

"Mr. Secretary, if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan this camp will become empty. We will return to Syria and we will fight with knives," said one female refugee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal against her or her family.

"You as the U.S. government look to Israel with respect," she said. "Cannot you do the same with the children of Syria?"

"The international community can decide to keep its eyes closed as long as it wants. We will return to Syria and we will remember everything," said a male refugee, who asked not to be named for the same reason.

Kerry listened grimly to the complaints of the refugees, which included five from Daara, the Syrian city closest to the camp in Jordan, and one from Homs, which has been under increasing siege by President Bashar Assad's military for weeks.

"A lot of different options are under consideration," Kerry responded. "I wish it was very simple. As you know, we've been fighting two wars for 12 years. We are trying to help in various ways, including helping Syrian opposition fighters have weapons. We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things but it is not as simple as it sounds."

"You are not abandoned," he said. "We are very aware of how terrible conditions are inside Syria. I came here today because we are concerned. I promise you I will take your voices and concerns back with me to Washington as we continue to work with our friends in ways that can be helpful."

After the meeting, Kerry told reporters he understood the refugees' concerns but stressed that the U.S. is the largest provider of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, both inside the country and in camps. Washington has provided nearly $815 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrians through the United Nations, $147 million of which has been directed to relief agencies working in Jordan.

"I think they are frustrated and angry at the world for not stepping up," Kerry said. "If I was in their shoes I would be looking for help wherever I could find it. I share their passion and frustration for the plight that they face on a day-to-day basis."

Killian Kleinschmidt, the camp manager for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the refugees' stories are getting worse.

"The conflict has reached a level of brutality that is unbelievable," he told Kerry in a briefing before the secretary met the refugees.

Kleinschmidt said every family can tell stories of rape, torture, arrest and disappearances. Children draw "horrible pictures of destruction," he said.

The camp houses about 115,000 people, making it the fourth largest city in Jordan, which is now home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees and is struggling to cope with their presence. Turkey and Lebanon are also hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. The United Nations has called it the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

The Zaatari camp was set up last July. At the high point in April, an average of 1,500 people arrived each day. The current population is down from a high of nearly 130,000 because some people are leaving — some to go back to join the fight, some to tend to properties in areas that are relatively safe and some into Jordan proper if they can prove they have relatives already there.

But people are still arriving, although in much smaller numbers than before; most Syrians who lived closest to the border are already in Jordan and the new arrivals are coming from farther away, Kleinschmidt said, One hundred arrivals Wednesday night had spent 17 days on the road coming from the Homs area, about 200 miles away. The start of Ramadan may also play a role in the reduced influx of refugees.