(This story contains material from a member of the pool of State Department correspondents in Jordan, of which Arshad Mohammed of Reuters is a member; adds detail from U.N. official)
By Arshad Mohammed
ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (Reuters) - Syrian refugees angrily told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday that the United States should set up a no-fly zone and safe havens in Syria to protect their fellow citizens.
Visiting a camp that holds roughly 115,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan about 12 km (8 miles) from the Syrian border, Kerry spent about 40 minutes with half a dozen refugees who vented their frustration at the international community’s failure to end Syria’s more than two-year civil war.
He told them Washington was considering options, including buffer zones for their protection, but that the situation was complex and appeared to hint at war fatigue in the United States after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
”Where is the international community? What are you waiting for?“ a Syrian woman, who did not give her name, told Kerry at the United Nations’ Zaatari refugee camp. ”At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo.
“The U.S., as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington.”
Waving a pen in the air and tapping it on the table, the woman referred to the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in three weeks. She said: ”Mr. Secretary, if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan this camp will become empty. We will return to Syria and we will fight with knives.
“You, as the U.S. government look to Israel with respect. Cannot you do the same with the children of Syria?”
Kerry took a helicopter tour of the tents and pre-fabricated, container-like homes that form by far the biggest camp for Syrians in Jordan. Meeting refugees afterwards in a fenced-off administrative section, he acknowledged the anger.
“They are frustrated and angry at the world for not stepping in and helping,” Kerry told reporters. “I explained to them I don’t think it’s as cut and dry and as simple as some of them look at it. But if I were in their shoes I would be looking for help from wherever I could find it.”
More than 1.7 million Syrian refugees have fled to nearby countries to escape fighting that began as protests against the government in March 2011 and has degenerated into civil war with an increasingly sectarian dimension.
A U.N. official described the Zaatari camp as a small city with 3,000 shops chiefly along its “Champs Elysees” main street, scores of restaurants and food vendors, a taxi service, schools, soccer fields and hospitals within its 12 districts.
It has also been the scene of riots but Kilian Kleinschmidt, the U.N. official who administers the camp, said it has begun to emerge from the “dark period” of violence, as its traumatized residents have begun to reconcile themselves to a lengthy stay.
Kerry did not enter the part of the camp where the refugees reside, keeping to the administrative area where humanitarian officials work and live. The six refugees were brought to meet Kerry within the administrative zone.
During the meeting, Kerry told the refugees that many young Americans had died or lost their limbs “fighting for the freedom” of Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the request for buffer and no-fly zones, Kerry said: ”A lot of different options are under consideration. 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.”
In June, the White House announced plans to provide direct military support to the Syrian rebels.
“We are doing everything we can to help Syrians be able to fight for Syria,” Kerry said. Noting U.S. aid to the camp, he added: “You are not abandoned.”
Kerry noted U.S. concerns about the help being given to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. He also lamented divisions among the opposition.
Speaking after she met Kerry, a second Syrian woman seemed unimpressed, telling reporters: “We are not satisfied with the American answer. We never were. We just need ... action.”
Jordan has been host to big U.N. camps for Palestinian refugees for more than six decades.
The administrator at Zaatari, Kleinschmidt, was asked by reporters how long his camp would remain open for Syrians. He replied: “Three days. Thirty years. Who knows?”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Alison Williams