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The Globe and Mail

John Kerry sees the human cost of Assad’s staying power

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a brief visit to the Zaatari refugee camp, the second largest in the world, on Thursday. He heard from several residents frustrated with the international community’s inability to bring the Syrian civil war to an end.


Gazing out of his helicopter at this scene of Syrian refugees in northern Jordan on Thursday, it would have been natural for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to think to himself: enough.

The country's civil war, which has raged in Syria for 28 months, has killed about 93,000 people. It also led to the grim creation of the Zaatari Camp, a refugee centre about 20 kilometres from the Syrian border inside Jordan. Already the country's fifth largest city, its 115,000 residents make it the world's second largest facility of its kind, with only Dadaab of Kenya being larger.

The people in Zaatari Camp come largely from the Daraa district, just 30 kilometres to the northwest, where the Syrian conflict first began in March, 2011. Since the conflict spread, 1.7 million people have fled their country, the U.N. estimates, with as many as 6,000 more leaving every day. Some 500,000 have already crossed into Jordan, the same amount settling in Turkey. Others have gone to Lebanon.

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At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, it seemed so easy. In the wake of popular, and successful, democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, young people took to the streets in Daraa calling for democratic reforms. They were met with a response more brutal than that of any other Arab state.

From the beginning, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was under-estimated. Few people foresaw how ruthless his forces would be; fewer still gave him more than a few months to survive in power.

More than two years later, however, Mr. al-Assad remains with no end to his regime in sight.

In Washington Thursday, speaking before the Senate, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said of Mr. al-Assad: "The tide seems to have shifted in his favor."

In London, a British official acknowledged that the Western assessment of the Syrian leader has changed. "We thought Assad could only hold on for a few months. We now think he can last a few years," he said.

As a result, rebels have begun to turn on each other. There are growing signs of fighting between members of the Free Syrian Army and various radical jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda. Last week, a prominent FSA commander was killed, allegedly by a jihadist force known as the Islamic States of Iraq. On Monday, Selim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, said he wanted the foreign jihadists to leave Syria.

As well, Kurdish forces, who have kept out of the civil war to protect their own interests, have fought recently with jihadist groups in the oil and gas fields of Hasaka province in northeastern Syria.

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Mr. Kerry flew into Zaatari Camp Thursday to see for himself how bad things have gotten. He spent about 40 minutes with half a dozen refugees who were brought out of the residential area to meet with him. He got an earful about failing to come to Syrians' rescue.

"Where is the international community?" asked one woman who did not give her name. "What are you waiting for?"

"At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo," she said. "The U.S., as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington."

"We are doing everything we can to help Syrians be able to fight for Syria," Mr. Kerry told her. In June, the White House announced plans to provide direct military support to the Syrian rebels.

"It is not as simple as it sounds." The U.S. people are tired, he said. "As you know, we've been fighting two wars for 12 years," referring to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Noting U.S. aid to the camp, Mr. Kerry assured her and the others: "You are not abandoned."

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"Mr. Secretary," the woman responded, "if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan [three weeks from now] this camp will become empty. We will return to Syria and we will fight with knives."


  • 115,000 refugees (as of July 18, 2013)
  • 16,500 container/shelters
  • $2500 cost per container
  • 584 restaurants or food stalls
  • 3000 shops or vendors
  • 15 babies born each day on average
  • $1-million a day to run the camp
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