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Even as U.S. strikes loom, Syrian refugees lament them as too little, too late

Marooned in the world’s second largest refugee settlement, Syrians uprooted by the mayhem in their homeland gathered in the thick afternoon heat Friday to speak eagerly about expected U.S. strikes against President Bashar Assad and their hope that U.S. cruise missiles will drive him from power.

“We think Bashar will run away the first night,” said Ziat Ibrahim, 20, who reached the Zaatari camp with 11 relatives four days ago after a 200-mile flight by foot, buses and trucks from their village near the western city of Homs. “We are disappointed that it has taken the Americans so long.”

That disillusionment, however, is likely to deepen. Any U.S. operation is expected to be brief and leave Assad in power, targeting only military and government entities linked to what Western powers and other governments charge was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.

Should President Barack Obama order limited U.S. missile strikes, several refugees warned, the resulting anger could drive up popular support for the Islamist groups, like the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, fighting at the forefront of the rebellion against Assad.

“If America doesn’t strike hard against Bashar, we will support anyone who resists,” declared Mohammad Ahmad, 32, from the Golan Heights village of Khan Arnabeh. “That means the Nusra Front.”

“If you want to make Assad’s regime go, you have to shoot, shoot, shoot, until they are finished, not shoot for two days and then end it,” he said as a gaggle of wheelbarrow-pushing boys raced by, competing to haul the ragged suitcases and bundles of newly arrived refugees.

“If the Americans stop bombing after three days, we will believe that America has made a deal with Assad” to allow him to stay in power, said Karima Said. Her family fled their Golan Heights village of Batna eight months ago so her husband could seek treatment for a gunshot wound he suffered during an anti-Assad protest.

The United States and its European allies have resisted intervening militarily in Syria’s war, which is estimated to have claimed more than 100,000 lives since March 2011, driven 1.6 million people out of Syria and left millions struggling to live in devastated cities and towns.

The opposition’s political leadership is riven by ideological and personal differences, leaving it incapable of replacing the regime in Damascus, crippling U.S.-led efforts to unify its members and hammer together a cohesive military command. Moreover, the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebel forces are dominated by Islamists.

The Nusra Front is widely considered the best of the guerrilla contingents scattered around the country. The al Qaida-linked militia includes thousands of foreign fighters who’ve flocked to Syria to battle what they consider a heretical regime because it is dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Islam’s minority Shiite branch, backed by Iran’s Shiite regime and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia movement.

Nusra appears to be popular in Zaatari, a sun-baked sprawl of tents, prefabricated metal huts, makeshift shops and four foreign-run hospitals set along dusty streets and ringed by fences guarded by Jordanian security forces.

Located about five miles from the border with Syria, the settlement’s population of more than 140,000 people makes it Jordan’s fourth largest city and the world’s second largest refugee camp after Dadaab in Kenya.

“The Nusra Front is perfect,” crowed Karima Said’s husband, Issa, as he stood at the doorway of the white metal hut they share with their four children. “They are fighting well.”

Issa Said agreed with the other refugees who said that the Nusra Front’s popularity could rise if any U.S. missile strikes are halted before forcing Assad and his top aides to abandon Damascus.

The Islamists “are strong and they will continue to resist,” said Issa Said, who cleaned ceramic tiles for a living before he was wounded in his left shin, where surgery to repair a smashed bone has left a dull red scar.

Ziad Sawaleh, 40, who fled six months ago from the embattled city of Daraa, where large-scale anti-Assad protests first erupted during the 2011 Arab Spring, was among the few refugees who said they doubted that any U.S. strikes would make a difference.

“If the Americans wanted to help, they’d have helped from the beginning,” said Sawaleh, a former shopkeeper who works as the caretaker of a mosque set up in a large tent supplied by Saudi Arabia. “We are happy now, but they are too late. Still, we have a saying: ‘Better they come late than never.’”

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