Those Americans who count themselves as “war-weary” should meet Fawzia, a middle-aged woman who made perhaps the most difficult decision any parent can.
Fawzia was among the refugees straggling across the Syria-Jordan border here to the Zaatari Refuge Camp. She had just arrived on a dangerous weeklong journey from Ghouta, a Damascus suburb where nerve gas killed hundreds on Aug 21. But for Fawzia, chemical weapons are secondary. The real weapons of mass destruction in Syria are the AK-47s, rockets, missiles and bombs. An agreement brokered by the world’s powers that is limited to chemical weapons — while useful — seems a bit irrelevant to the atrocities that define the lives of most Syrians.
No one in Fawzia’s family was hurt in the chemical weapons attack, but then there was a ferocious conventional shelling of her neighborhood. Her family members scattered in terror, and Mustafa, her 8-year-old son, disappeared. No one knows what happened to him.
Fawzia decided to flee with two children to Jordan, in hopes of saving them, possibly sacrificing Mustafa. She is racked by guilt.
The United Nations refugee agency, which runs this Zaatari camp, is accustomed to tragedy. An aid worker gently told her how to register Mustafa’s name in case he turns up somewhere.
Talking to Syrians like Fawzia, it seems bizarre and narcissistic that in Washington there is talk of whether the Syrian crisis has been “resolved.” Maybe the politicians’ crisis there has been eased, but the humanitarian catastrophe here just gets worse.
Indeed, in the last couple of weeks, President Bashar Assad seems to have stepped up the pace of bombing, shelling and other conventional attacks on civilian areas.
Fawzia says she would like to see American missile strikes on her country, in hopes that an assault would degrade the Syrian army’s capacity for mass murder and shorten the war. That seems by far the most common view among refugees here, although it’s not universal. Some worry about civilian casualties or think a strike would be too little, too late.
Whatever one thinks of a military strike to destroy some of Assad’s murderous air force — I’m in favor but have very little company in the U.S. — we should find common ground in insisting that international negotiations address not only chemical stockpiles but also humanitarian access in Syria.
That would mean demanding that the Syrian government and rebels alike allow aid workers and food and medical assistance across their lines. It’s not impossible that both sides would agree under pressure, and that might ease some of the worst suffering within Syria.
Valerie Amos, the United Nations humanitarian chief, tells me that nearly 7 million Syrians will need aid to survive. Humanitarian access could save some of those lives, and also reduce the hemorrhage of refugees.
The United Nations estimates that every 17 seconds another Syrian flees the country, placing almost unbearable strains on Lebanon and Jordan, in particular. Jordan has been remarkably welcoming to Syrian refugees, but public resentment has apparently led the government to tighten the arrival spigot recently, and many tens of thousands of displaced Syrians are now reportedly stuck on the Syrian side of the border.
One-third of Syrians are now displaced. On an American scale, that would be equivalent to 100 million Americans having fled their homes.
This refugee camp, Zaatari, is already one of the biggest cities in Jordan, and the refugees are tough to manage. A few months ago, they began dismantling a trailer that functioned as a police station. Within hours, there was nothing left; they had stolen an entire police station.
Many refugees told me that everyone in their neighborhoods would relocate to Jordan if it weren’t so dangerous to travel.
Fareeda al-Hassan, a woman from the city of Hama, had just crossed from Syria with a gaggle of children when I met her. She explained that government bombing had destroyed her home and she had seen pro-government militias behead children, so she paid a guide to smuggle them on a 10-day journey that bypassed government checkpoints. If soldiers think travelers are headed for Jordan, they sometimes execute them as presumptive traitors.
During the family’s journey, a machine-gun post opened fire on their convoy. The two vehicles in front of theirs, a bus and a private car, burst into flames and everyone in them was killed, Hassan said.
Guides ferrying Syrians to Jordan sometimes give small children sleeping pills so that they won’t cry from hunger and draw an attack from Syrian troops.
We may not be able to solve Syria’s problems. I’m not even certain that we can mitigate them. But we can try, and a starting point would be a big push for humanitarian access.
Maybe that would even allow aid workers to find Mustafa and reunite him with his guilt-ridden mother.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.