Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

I ask a Syrian refugee named Isra why her 8-year-old boy isn’t attending the camp school. “He doesn’t like school,” she explains. At home in Daraa, an agent of the regime came into his second-grade classroom, forced her son to hold a grenade against his chest and told him, “Go home to your father. Tell him if he doesn’t stop fighting for the Free Syrian Army, I will come back next week and pull the pin.”

It is a hint of the brutality just across the border, largely hidden from view. When the terror and killing finally calm, one suspects we will find a nation of Srebrenicas.

Aid workers dealing with children in the camp report they are traumatized and politicized. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) recruits within Zaatri. A young humanitarian worker running a sports program for restless young men in the camp was recently confronted by a religious leader. “They are having too much fun,” he told her. “They won’t go back to fight.”

The Syrian civil war initially had more to do with tribe, family and power. But the regime and other actors in the regional proxy war have cynically encouraged religious and ethnic divisions. Sectarianism — carefully planted and cultivated — has taken root.

Jordan, the region’s buffer zone, fears that the economic strain caused by massive refugee flows could someday become a security crisis. The royal government’s nightmare: Jordanian Salafists going across the border into Syria, getting weapons and experience, and coming back home.

This may help explain why the flow of refugees from Syria to Jordan — 4,000 to 5,000 a day earlier in the year — has slowed to a trickle during the past two months. It is not because conditions across the border have improved (at night, the residents of Zaatri can hear the shelling in Syria). It is because the pipeline has been effectively plugged. At the height of the migration, the FSA acted as the facilitators of safe passage, moving groups at night (and sometimes giving children sleeping tablets so they would not cry and attract enemy fire). The FSA is no longer playing such a role. Humanitarian and refugee officials generally believe this is the result of an agreement between the Jordanian government and the FSA. “The Jordanians are still letting people in,” one told me, “but not at uncontrolled rates.” As a result, there may be thousands or tens of thousands (estimates differ wildly) of refugees waiting on the Syrian side of the border.

U.S. policy is making difficult adjustments as well. Since the worst elements in Syria have grown stronger over time, delay has complicated every course. At first, the Obama administration hoped that Bashar al-Assad would fall without being pushed. Then it adopted a policy of wait-and-see as the tide of battle turned in Assad’s favor, with help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Then a policy of arming selected rebels that doesn’t seem to have armed any rebels.

President Obama may finally be provoked beyond endurance by another Baathist regime prone to brutish miscalculation. But a cruise-missile campaign to protest and deter the use of chemical weapons would do little to change the situation on the ground. And Obama would need to decide if this is his goal.

Not everyone shares it. One European aid worker in Jordan told me the United States should stop meddling and “let Darwinism prevail.” Yet an Assad victory in much of the country would fill prisons and mass graves and cause new waves of refugees. And the establishment of al-Qaeda havens within Syria would be a direct threat to U.S. interests and allies. Some Darwinian mutations are not acceptable.

The best-case scenario is probably this: a negotiated outcome in which Assad departs and other regime elements agree to form an interim government with the non-extremist members of the opposition. The new government would then need to engage in a multi-year power struggle (aided by the United States) with the jihadists. But this approach would require convincing the regime it can’t win militarily. Which would probably only happen after a Kosovo-style, Western air campaign. And all would depend on making the (relatively) secular opposition a more credible force in the conflict. (The jihadist opposition to Assad, with support from the Gulf states, possesses better weapons, cohesion, commitment and leadership than does the FSA.)

Pursuing the best-case scenario is exceedingly difficult, messy and thankless. And it would require exertions of leadership and will the president has not yet shown.

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