Michael Weiss spent a day in a Syrian refugee camp just barely on the other side of the Turkish border and he wrote a two-part dispatch for NOW Lebanon.
Khalid was the youngest, dressed as if he were ready for a night of clubbing in Cyprus: acid-washed jeans and a fitted knit shirt patterned with soft-colored Tetris geometry. He had blue eyes and light skin, his hair was gelled, and his chin was lined with a few days’ of scruff worthy of an aspiring bassist. Like almost everyone I’d meet that day, Khalid was from Jisr al-Shughour and first came to Hatay fleeing the regime’s massacre there last June. Since he looked the most well-kept out of the bunch, I asked him how he was holding up. “OK. The beginning was better than now.” After 11 months, he wanted to go home.
In a white baseball cap and light blue shirt, Hamza was the political one. When I put it to the assembled why they thought the United States hadn’t intervened in Syria, as they all hoped it would, he answered: “Because Americans don’t like Muslims, and the US wants to protect the security of Israel.” Mahmoud was unimpressed with this response and replied matter-of-factly that in his 20 years of living in Atlanta, he’d had a better life, and had been more accepted, than he had during his youth in Hama or in any European country he’d lived in since. Joe Lieberman, he said, was a Jewish senator and very pro-Israel, and he was the one calling for military intervention in Syria. Khalid and the others nodded.
Everyone wanted a buffer zone, a no-fly zone and weapons. This answer to the question I posed to every Syrian I met of what the West could do to help was so universal that it became a kind of exile’s catechism. Rachid, dressed in a brown kaftan, cleanly shaven with short hair, was an Air Force colonel who defected and wanted to go back in and fight and vowed to do so when there was a buffer zone. He suggested that an air campaign against the regime could just target the Republican Guard headquarters and the Presidential Palace and that’d be enough to cause mass army defections, if not regime collapse. “For Libya, you had the no-fly zone for the whole country. You don’t need that for Syria,” he told me.
Now it was their turn to query me about politics and what they saw as American indifference toward their plight. “Why have they forgotten about us?” Rachid asked. “If George Bush was president, Assad would be finished,” another said in what was also a common refrain among the stranded Syrians of Hatay.
I won’t pretend that I was the finest spokesperson for stated Obama administration policy, but I ran through the usual arguments trotted out to push diplomacy over military action: Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, his allegedly robust air defense systems, fear of stoking al-Qaeda or jihadist involvement, Syria’s awkward location in a deeply restive neighborhood. There was also the obvious matter of an upcoming presidential election featuring an incumbent who wanted the US out of the Middle East altogether and a challenger who poll-tested his way into the same general campaign posture. Though it was significant, I said, that John Kerry, who wants to be Secretary of State and would say or do nothing to jeopardize this appointment, had recently come out in favor of a buffer zone.
The council accepted that intervention, if it did come, wouldn’t come soon, but the consensus was still that the US had got Syria all wrong from the start of the uprising. The notion that the armed opposition or al-Qaeda had been waging terrorist attacks in Syria was met with hostile skepticism here, as it had been by the Turkish cabbie that drove us to the camp. “If the FSA had a 1,000-kilogram bomb,” one refugee said, referring to the huge explosion that rocked the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Damascus two days earlier and was allegedly the work of jihadists, “then this war would be over by now.” Rachid was particularly incensed at Western media coverage of the siege of Jisr al-Shughour last June, in which many outlets lazily led with whatever SANA—the regime-controlled media bureau—was putting out about “armed gangs” killing security forces. The fact that army defectors had turned their guns on the mukhabarat had yet to penetrate the popular imagination.
As to the threat of an Islamist takeover of Syria following Assad’s fall, Western officials besotted with this deterministic lament ought to come to Boynuyogun and canvas opinion of this constituency. Even the Sheikh, for whom a daily Norelco regimen was all that kept him from being physically mistaken for a Salafist, was no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood.