By Victoria Cavaliere
PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama tries to persuade Congress that the time has come for military action in Syria, one slice of the population - immigrants from that war-torn country - has more cause to worry.
Syrians living in the United States are deeply divided about what should be done - with some calling for a swift bombing campaign to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, while others blame the crisis on rebel groups. Yet both camps are united in fearing that U.S. strikes will only mean more bloodshed back home.
The 2-1/2 year conflict has touched the lives of many ex-patriate Syrians, as stories unfold of family members and friends who have been killed or beaten - either by forces loyal to the Syrian regime or by the opposition.
In the town of Paterson, New Jersey, about 20 miles south of New York City, is a section called "Little Syria," where a sizable Syrian community lives and works. Restaurants and shops along Main Street keep their television sets tuned to news channels showing the latest developments in the civil war, while friends are quick to pass along Internet videos showing destruction from the latest attacks.
"I wanted the USA to step in from the beginning to defeat Assad," said Ahmed Jay, 22, whose family opened Paterson's Aleppo Restaurant after moving to the United States in 2004. "I have ten friends who have died; two cousins, one aunt, one uncle. We've gotten used to crying."
Others said they felt let down - by both the Obama administration and the international community. Britain's parliament earlier this week voted against military action in Syria.
"This is the third year Assad has been killing people," said Mohamad Rahmoun, 55. "Why do we have to suffer like this? I call the White House every day, every day. I tell them we need help."
"We want Obama to bomb the regime," he said. "But we don't want civilians killed."
On Friday, Obama said he was considering a "limited, narrow" military action to punish Assad for a poison gas attack outside Damascus that U.S. intelligence said killed 1,429 people.
On Saturday, White House officials were to make their case to the full Senate.
They could face a tough audience, with a Reuters/Ipsos poll showing that 53 percent of Americans, weary after a decade of foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, believe the United States should stay out of Syria.
"A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it," Obama said.
'I AM WORRIED'
The question is a particularly tough one for Syrians with family members back home. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 159,000 people of Syrian ancestry live in the United States, with the largest concentration in the northeast, according to data from 2009.
Mossab Awad, a 27-year-old medical student in Massachusetts, said he thought Washington had little choice but to strike, but worried about the safety of his mother, father and brother.
"How do we know the missiles won't kill innocent people, and how do we know it won't just cause Assad to be even more brutal?" Awad said. "He can set the region in flames."
Adding to Awad's anxiety is the fact that he has not heard from his family in his government-controlled hometown of Idlib for days.
"When I last talked to them, they were fine. But the phones have stopped working and I have heard the rebels are trying to take Idlib," he said. "I am worried."
Syrians in America who support the Assad regime, or simply distrust the rebel groups, warn that U.S. military intervention could only lead to further destabilization in the region.
Some blame the opposition for many of the atrocities, including the August 21 poison gas attack, and fear the country could follow down the path of Iraq, which has been plagued by sectarian violence since the end of the U.S.-led invasion.
Syrians and anti-war activists calling for "Hands Off Syria," have been staging daily protests in Manhattan.
The rebels "are driving America and the rest of the world into another unnecessary war in a fabricated, orchestrated scenario of having chemical weapons. Just like what happened in Iraq," said Tom Sarkin, 37, who was 17 when he immigrated to the United States from Aleppo.
Others said the Assad government was defending the Syrian people from an influx of foreign fighters and their Islamist influence.
"These (rebel) fighters aren't from Syria, they are called Islamic Brotherhood and they are from all over ... Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya ... from all over the world," said Farah Slebi, 22, who moved to Brooklyn, New York, five years ago to attend school.
She called Assad "a good man."
"He brought technology to Syria. He made online studying, just like in the U.S.," Slebi said. "We didn't ask for this freedom from Assad. We were free."
During a protest in Times Square on Thursday, Slebi got in a heated argument with someone from a counter-demonstration calling for regime change in Syria.
"We used to be friends," she said. But no longer: "He's against the government."
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York and Richard Valdmanis in Boston; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)