More than 90,000 people are estimated to have died in the uprising turned civil war, according to the United Nations, with no end in sight. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with help from Iran and fighters sent by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group, have gained the upper hand in recent months. A haphazard and noncommittal Western policy on Syria has left the country’s moderate opposition impotent and scuttled the prospect of U.S.- and Russian-backed peace talks in the near future, according to analysts and rebel representatives. Meanwhile, they say, unrest in Egypt has pushed the Syrian crisis further down the agenda.
One of the Syrian women at the Jordanian camp asked Kerry: “What are you waiting for? We hope you will not go back to the States before you find a solution to the crisis. At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo.”
The State Department asked reporters not to use the refugees’ names.
“The U.S., as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington,” the woman continued, drumming a pen on the table.
“They are frustrated and angry at the world,” Kerry said afterward. If he were in their shoes, he added, he also would be asking for help anywhere he could get it.
The Obama administration, in a policy shift, has pledged to send weapons to the ragtag Syrian rebel forces, though the opposition says they are yet to arrive. Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the main Syrian Opposition Coalition, said Wednesday that its leaders expect to learn more about the promised U.S. assistance when they meet with Ambassador Robert Ford in Istanbul on Saturday. Saleh added, however, that there is little hope of weapons that would change the balance of power on the ground — which is essential if the Assad government is to be persuaded to negotiate in any substantive way, analysts said.
The political process has reached a “standstill,” Saleh said.
“The U.S. has approached the two questions of arming and diplomacy in the same hesitant, unfocused, uncommitted and unprepared way,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The result is disastrous. It has lost credibility, confused partners and alienated potential Syrian partners.”
Western diplomats say infighting in the mainstream opposition has not helped its cause.
However, Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the West’s obsession with the “musical chairs” of Syrian opposition leaders flows from its reluctance to commit to any meaningful strategy.
“It looks like the opposition have bet on the wrong horse,” he said, adding that its leading backers “have all proven unable or unwilling to resolve the biggest challenge: of doing what it takes militarily to defeat the regime or of doing what it takes politically to produce a negotiated transition.”
In a further setback for the opposition, Britain — which has been vocal about the possibility of arming the rebels and joined France in securing the lapse of a European Union arms embargo on Syria — last week gave Parliament the right to “explicit prior consent” on any decision to send weapons.
“We feel frustrated,” Saleh said. “The allies of the regime are giving their support, but our allies are shaky.”
That vacuum in support has led to a vicious cycle, one Western diplomat said. Jumping in to fill the void are al-Qaeda-linked groups, he said, whose ascendancy is in turn feeding fears in Washington and London about the consequences of providing arms.
“The one group that doesn’t get enough support is the moderate opposition, and this cannot be a good thing,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the crisis more freely.
In Washington, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that Assad has gained the upper hand in the conflict. “Currently, the tide seems to have shifted in his favor,” Dempsey said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In the past, Pentagon leaders have said repeatedly that it was just a matter of time before rebel forces toppled Assad.
President Obama has ruled out sending troops to Syria, and Kerry suggested that pleas for broader military intervention may be in vain. “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,” he said. “We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things, but it is not as simple as it sounds.”
Some analysts say that the Syrian conflict is already affecting the region more profoundly than the Iraq war but that it may not make a difference in terms of U.S. engagement. In addition to the ghosts of past Middle Eastern wars, they suggest, the recent unrest in Egypt is also holding the United States back.
“Egypt is a considerably more important U.S. equity than Syria,” Hokayem said.
Meanwhile, refugees continue to pour into neighboring states, in what the United Nations has called the worst refugee crisis in 20 years — with an average of 6,000 fleeing everyday.
The Zaatari refugee camp, about eight miles inside the border, now has enough people to count as Jordan’s fifth-largest city. It largely houses women and children, most of them from just across the border. About 60,000 of the camp’s residents are children.
Kerry flew over the vast camp in a helicopter before driving in a heavily protected convoy into a fenced-in area where he met with the six refugees, handpicked by the camp staff. They were polite but firm in insisting that no one, including the United States, is doing enough.
“A lot of different options are under consideration. I wish it was very simple,” Kerry told the group.
Camp director Kilian Kleinschmidt told Kerry that Zaatari’s residents have thrown stones at U.N. administrators to protest the lack of international military intervention in Syria, as well as the perceived lack of international political and diplomatic attention to the war and its victims.
“You are the chief excuse for the international community,” the camp director told Kerry.
Kleinschmidt, a German who represents the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said residents tell him, “We are not impressed by the $1 or $2 million a day you are spending on us.”
The year-old camp has become a point of contention in Jordan because of the huge strain it imposes on the nation’s water and electricity supply.
Kleinschmidt told Kerry that the camp is replacing tents with more-permanent housing and helping residents settle in for what might be a long stay.
That was not what Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, seated next to Kerry in a small trailer at the camp headquarters, wanted to hear.
“When we opened he camp, we said we were looking forward to the day we could close it,” he interjected. “It’s temporary.”
Morris reported from Beirut. Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.