ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan — Many residents of this sprawling refugee camp in the desert just south of the Syrian border said they welcomed possible U.S. airstrikes against the forces of President Bashar Assad, hoping the attacks would target the Syrian leader.
Several refugees interviewed on Friday said they hoped the strikes would help create a battlefield alliance between the United States and Islamic radicals fighting the secular government, which would result in the ouster of the regime. Others predicted that Assad would immediately flee to Iraq or Russia.
The sprawling camp less than five miles from the Syrian-Jordanian border was set up just a year ago. With nearly 140,000 people, the collection of trailers, prefabricated homes and tents is already the fourth-largest town in Jordan, and its population is continuing to grow, as refugees keep flooding across the border.
The residents of Zaatari are just a small fraction of the Syrian refugees who have flooded into Jordan. International aid groups say more 550,000 have fled to Jordan to escape the fighting. Most live with relatives or friends in Jordan’s largest cities. The influx has placed a huge strain on Jordan’s fragile economy — draining its water and energy resources, driving up the cost of food and housing for its citizens, and increasing competition for jobs.
The Zaatari camp contains four hospitals, dozens of food stalls, and a large commercial district with hundreds of shops. Jordanian police maintain a strong presence inside the camp, and closely monitor people going in or out.
U.N. officials, who together with the Jordanians run the camp, say almost all the residents are members of Syria’s Sunni majority, which has supported the 2 1/2-year uprising. There are virtually no Allawites, Christians, Druze, or Kurds — Syrian minorities, which have largely sided with the government in the escalating war.
During more than a dozen interviews conducted within the camp, all respondents said they expected the United States and its allies to hit Assad’s forces hard and to turn the tide of the war. But they all opposed sending U.S. troops to Syria, saying the job of removing Assad should be left to the opposition forces.
“We want airstrikes to hit the main military bases, but we don’t want foreign soldiers here,” said Rahed Muhammed el Soleh, 22, a refugee from the village of Abu Khanadek, near the central city of Homs. “We would be very happy, we would be with the United States [if it attacks]. If they help us finish with the ruling regime, we will be very happy.”
Ziad Ibrahim, 20, said he wished the aerial attacks strike at the heart of the regime. “Everyone I know thinks Bashar al-Assad will flee from Syria after the first night of attacks,” he said.
Ibrahim said he was from Homs, which Assad’s forces have largely recaptured from the insurgents who held much of the city for almost a year. Christian groups accuse the opposition of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of the city, saying that during that period about 50,000 members of the religious minority were expelled from Homs by members of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and allied jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra — the al-Qaida-affiliated group that emerged as the most effective and capable of the rebel forces.
Ibrahim said that if the attacks were limited to only a day or two, “then Bashar will just kill more people.”
Most analysts expect the possible attacks to last several days, and to target communications and control networks, air force and air defense installations, and other similar targets, rather than helping the rebels overthrow the regime.
“We’re not talking about an Iraq-style invasion; we’re not talking about a Libya-style, open-ended no-fly zone and operation,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday.
Some refugees said they admired Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups for their “fearlessness” in confronting the army’s heavily armed units. They pointed out that while many refugees were still streaming southward to Jordan, the Islamist militants were crossing the border into Syria to carry on the fight.
“I want the Americans to bomb Assad, but I want them also to help al-Nusra defeat Assad’s army on the ground,” said Mohammed Sawalha, a 35-year old builder from the southern town of Deraa, where the rebellion first started in early 2011.
His neighbor, Abed Khadar, 30, a truck driver, said he hoped that one night of heavy bombing would change the momentum of the war.
“The Americans will realize that Jabhat al-Nusra is the side they should support in the future to get rid of Assad,” he said. “After this bombing, they will become allies.”