ATMA, Syria - Traveling inside war-wracked Syria on the U.S. Election Day was a stark reminder of how lucky we are to have a vibrant democracy, whatever its failings.
It was also a reminder that Syrian rebels who want democracy, not an Islamic emirate, hope a second-term President Obama will finally move beyond anti-regime rhetoric and take firmer action to end Bashar al-Assad's rule.
I'm not certain their hopes will be met. But what I saw and heard in two forays into Syria, and meetings inside the Turkish border, has convinced me that Obama's timid first-term policy on Syria, if continued, will lead to a regional disaster. And it will further diminish waning U.S. influence in the Middle East.
I know Americans are sick of Mideast wars. Yet there's still a small chance U.S. leadership could prevent Syria from becoming a new mecca for militant jihadis. Obama's first big foreign-policy test will be whether he recognizes what needs to be done to prevent this. (Hint: It doesn't involve U.S. air strikes or putting American boots on the ground.) Drive around northern Syria and you see that there is no government in charge. "Eighty-five percent of the country is not governed by the regime," says a concerned official in the capital of next-door Turkey, "but it is not governed by the opposition either. Syria now is a failed state." Revolutionary councils - ordinary citizens trying to restore services - have been set up in many towns. Meeting with council members from Aleppo, Idlib, and the Latakia suburbs, I heard the same story over and over: They have no resources, and neither the international community nor the United States is providing any.
A refugee camp of 8,000 displaced people, near the Turkish border, with rows of white tents and water-distribution tanks, is being run wholly by expatriate Syrians struggling to raise the funding. Turkey, already home to 100,000 Syrian refugees, can take no more, even as the number of civilians fleeing the shelling and bombing continues to soar.
U.S. officials insist Assad must go but have limited Washington's assistance to nonlethal aid to nonviolent civilians - namely, communications equipment and training courses. "We heard a lot that the U.S. would support us, but we didn't see anything on the ground," I was told by Suhair al-Atassi, a longtime secular opposition activist and lawyer from a famous political family.
Meantime, rebel military groups inside Syria have mushroomed. Militant religious fighters, while in the minority, find it easy to get funds from rich Gulf Arabs. Non-Islamist fighting groups, led by defecting Syrian military officers or ordinary civilians, go begging for weapons.
Efforts to create a central command of these militias - led by secular officers - have failed because they lack resources, such as antiaircraft and antitank weapons, which would enable them to create a de facto buffer zone along the border. The United States has refused to provide any arms, for fear they would go astray. But that gives the militants the upper hand.
When I met Atassi, a striking woman in a black sleeveless top, she was headed for Doha, Qatar, to a meeting Thursday of Syrian opposition activists who hope to form a new Syrian national council drawn heavily from rebels within the country. This body could ultimately form a transitional government and serve as a conduit for international aid.
But without firm commitments from the United States, this new council will have no leverage. Moreover, unless the United States and allied countries provide secular military councils inside Syria with funds and arms, religious militias will multiply, Atassi says.
I saw what this could mean on a visit to the village of Atma, about 12 miles into Syria, where I visited the local headquarters of the Suqur al-Sham brigades, an Islamist fighting group operating in Idlib province. Young men with Kalashnikov machine guns lingered inside a walled courtyard; some were cleanshaven, but most wore beards.
I spoke with Abed Abu Hajar, 27, who wears a Salafi-style chin growth, has a French mother, and received an engineering degree in Belgium. He commands a brigade of 200 in the Idlib fighting, and enthusiastically told me the group's objectives: "To end this regime and build an Islamic state after it is gone." That means governing "according to the Quran and sharia law," said Abu Hajar. He said his group was unlike al-Qaida because it didn't target civilians and wouldn't impose an Islamic state by force. Its objective, he said, was to free Syria, not to wage international war.
Yet he insisted Islam requires Muslim women to veil, forbids alcohol even to Christians, and considers the Alawite Shiite sect (10 percent of the Syrian population) un-Islamic. Inside the Suqur al-Sham courtyard were youths belonging to Jabhat al-Nusrah, a group with al-Qaida links.
Atassi says militant Salafis are still a minority in Syria. Many youths - like the clean-shaven young men I saw in the Suqur al-Sham courtyard - are drawn to religious fighting groups as this vicious war drags on.
So, Obama must decide whether it's time to deliver aid to civilian and military groups inside Syria in hopes of ending the war sooner. Only firm Obama backing has any chance of convincing members of the regime, or their Russian backers, that it's time for Assad to go, Syrian activists tell me.
"We hope the Obama administration will really get involved now," said Atassi as she headed for her flight to Doha. "We hope this time they will keep their promises." Stay tuned.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.