ZAATARI, Jordan — Angry Syrian refugees confronted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday with demands for the United States and the international community to do more to help opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime, venting frustration at perceived inaction on their behalf.
Visiting the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, Kerry met six representatives of its 115,000-strong population, all of whom appealed to him for the U.S. and its allies to create no-fly zones and set up safe zones inside Syria to prevent the Assad regime from inflicting additional destruction. The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than 93,000 people and become the world's worst humanitarian crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"We are begging you for a no-fly zone," Jamalat Abu al-Hariri, one of the refugees, told reporters after the meeting.
Kerry listened grimly to the complaints for 40 minutes and promised to relay the refugees' concerns to Washington and other capitals. But, he also noted serious complications in meeting the demands and reminded them that the U.S. is their largest single benefactor. The U.S. has provided nearly $815 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians through the United Nations. Of that, $147 million has been directed to relief agencies working in Jordan, which is home to about 600,000 displaced Syrians.
His words, however, did not appear to assauge the six refugees — four women and a man from Daara, the Syrian city closest to the Zaatari camp, and one from Homs, which has been under increasing siege by Assad's military and Iranian-backed fighters for weeks.
"Mr. Secretary, if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan this camp will become empty," said one of the women from Daara, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal against her or her family. "We will return to Syria and we will fight with knives."
"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 one of the male refugees, who also asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Kerry had been warned of a possible hostile reception at the camp, where refugees frustrated at their living conditions and deteriorating conditions in their homeland have in the past attacked U.N. staff and other aid workers, but chose to go anyway to see the situation first-hand, according to U.S. officials.
"The stories that I've just heard and the people that I've just met put a real face on the level of the humanitarian crisis," Kerry told reporters after meeting the refugees. "Coming here today puts a very real, human face and a searing, unforgettable passion and urgency to our needs to try to address it on an international scope."
Kerry spent his time in Zaatari at the camp's administrative base, which is separated by a fence from the tens of thousands of prefabricated aluminum trailers in which the refugees live. He did not tour the dusty living quarters.
In his conversation with the refugees, Kerry attempted without apparent success to explain the U.S. position.
"A lot of different options are under consideration," he said after being repeatedly pressed for a no-fly zone. "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 insisted. "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.
"I think they are frustrated and angry at the world for not stepping up," he 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."
The Zaatari camp was set up last July and was at one point in April receiving an average of 1,500 new arrivals 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, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
But people are still arriving, although in 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, camp manager Killian Kleinschmidt said, One hundred arrivals Wednesday night had spent 17 days on the road coming from the Homs area, about 200 miles away, he said.
Despite the slight reduction in the camp's population, the stories from incoming refugees suggest the situation inside Syria is getting worse, Kleinschmidt said.
"The conflict has reached a level of brutality that is unbelievable," he said, adding that every family in the camp can tell stories of rape, torture, arrest and disappearances. Children draw "horrible pictures of destruction," he said.
Kerry is in Jordan on his sixth trip to the Middle East in as many months as secretary of state and flew by Jordanian military helicopter to the Zaatari camp northeast of Amman, about 12 kilometers from the Syrian border, accompanied by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.