Published: August 23, 2013
KILIS, Turkey — Doaa, a 17-year-old Syrian high school student, is one of the newcomers taking harbor outside the sprawling refugee camp in this Turkish border town bulging with those left homeless by Syria’s unrelenting civil war.
Her village, about 25 miles across the border, was the scene of heavy Syrian tank shelling just a few days ago, forcing her family to evacuate.
“I’m not suffering for food or drink. I’m suffering to return to Syria,” said Doaa, who did not provide her last name. “People are dying every day. And the children are suffering most. They’ve lost their childhood.”
There are about 300,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and 50,000 or so reside in Kilis. About 15,000 of those live in Kilis’ two refugee camps. But with those facilities full, many others are scattered around the border city, finding shelter where they can.
This is a place where moods swing wildly, reverberating between rage and boredom. Scuffles between frustrated teenagers break out. Old men pass the time under shady trees, the only escape from a blistering sun. When asked about their day-to-day life, many shrug.
“This life is so boring,” said Abdo Fadel, a 75-year-old refugee who says his village was plundered then burned to the ground by the Syrian army two years ago. Since then, he’s been at the main refugee camp in Kilis.
Fadel becomes agitated, however, when talk turns to Syria’s future and the West’s lack of military support for the country’s rebel army force. The opposition fighters — a troubling mix of pro-democracy rebels known as the Syrian Free Army and foreign Islamic militants — are engaged in a virtual stalemate with the regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad. Many refugees say they feel abandoned by the West, which has been leery of wading into the war or providing substantial supplies of weapons for fear they could fall into the wrong hands.
Some take the U.S. aversion as tacit support for Assad.
“Now America is an enemy because it is on the side of the enemy,” said Fadel, the father of five daughters and 11 sons, some of whom have taken up arms with opposition fighters.
Initially, Fadel said he hoped the U.S. would lend a muscular hand, much like the U.S. and NATO did in Libya when a no-fly zone enabled rebels to wage a successful military campaign against dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Today, Fadel says he’s soured on the West for its unwillingness to support the Syrian rebel army in the same way. Like many others here, he wants what the U.S. and its allies have been reluctant to offer: a no-fly zone that would ground Syrian fighter jets. Or even better: heavy weapons so that rebels can shoot down the planes themselves, he said.
Such feelings are likely to only intensify, particularly after new accusations that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons. Anti-regime activists say Assad’s forces Wednesday deployed chemical weapons outside of Damascus, killing more than 1,000 people. Syria has denied the claim.
If those allegations are proven, it could pressure a reluctant West to become more involved in the conflict. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Thursday said if such allegations prove true, a “reaction of force” would be required, though he told CNN affiliate BFM-TV that “force” would not include boots on the ground.
“If the U.N. Security Council cannot do it, decisions will be made otherwise,” Fabius told the network.
But there is little sign that the U.S. is prepared to intervene in a complex civil war where the battlefield is filled with Assad’s army, a loosely organized Free Syria Army, and a host of Islamic militant groups, some with ties to al-Qaida.
Some, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said the U.S. should take a tougher stance, such as enforcing a no-fly zone. However, it’s the messy strategic picture in Syria, with no clear allies on the ground, that has given the Obama administration pause.
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., which was obtained by The Associated Press. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Outside Kilis’ main refugee camp, opinions vary about why the West has stayed largely on the sidelines in the conflict. Some people say concerns about weapons falling into the hands of extremists is an excuse for inaction. Some even deny the existence of foreign fighters in Syria.
Doaa, the Syrian high school student, says America has turned a blind eye to chemical weapon use by the Syrian military.
“A ‘red line’ was crossed, but nothing happens,” she said, referring to an early statement by President Barack Obama warning that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would have consequences.
“America talks of democracy. Where is this democracy?” added Fadel, who scoffed at offerings of humanitarian aid, of which he is a beneficiary. “We don’t need food. We can eat grass. We need weapons.”
“I think they want the two sides to just fight and kill each other,” said Fayad Sheghri, 33, a former member of the Syrian army who defected two years ago to join rebel fighters.
Sheghri, who says he left Assad’s army during the early stages of the civil war after witnessing the indiscriminate killing of civilians by other soldiers, has been at the refugee camp in Kilis for one year, teaching math at a school inside the guarded camp.
On occasion, he returns to Syria.
“I go back and fight with them when necessary,” he said.
Other refugees say that the U.S. hesitation is understandable.
“A no-fly zone, that would be good for the Syrian people. Anti-aircraft weapons are needed,” said Ahmed, who didn’t give his last name because of security concerns. “But what can America do? It’s a great state, but it has its own internal affairs to concern itself with. America can’t do everything for all the people.”
Still, Ahmed, 32, said the U.S. should take Syrian rebel leaders at their word when they say they will not let weapons slip into the hands of foreign fighters, who have flooded the country.
“In the beginning these foreign people were welcomed by the Syrians. They came saying they were there to help,” he said. But it was an alliance forged out of opportunism, not a shared vision for Syria, he said.
However, over time many people grew fearful of the foreigners, who came brandishing a strict form of Islam that’s foreign to many in Syria, he said. “I don’t think those foreigners are welcome anymore,” said Ahmed, adding that the U.S. should do a trial run by supplying a limited number of weapons to test whether the rebel fighters can be trusted.
Meanwhile, life in the Turkish camp is dull, but secure, he said. Turkey provides a stipend of 55 Turkish lira (about $27) every 15 days for each person in his family. Ahmed, who has a wife, 2-year-old daughter and five unmarried sisters to support, said he gets by.
“When we left Syria, I carried my daughter through the mountains to escape the fighting,” he said. “She was 3 days old.”
Now, he’s trying to obtain passports so he can move his family to Europe. A demonstrator during the initial uprising in Syria, he hopes his name isn’t on a government list somewhere, which would make getting a passport not only impossible but dangerous.
“I’m trying to get out,” he said. “We’d like to go to Sweden. I hear they are good to refugees there.”