09/12/2013 05:05 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

Syrian Refugees Don't Care About Your Rhetoric

People worldwide can be forgiven for their sense of bewilderment at the constant back and forth between military and diplomatic solutions to the crisis in Syria. It used to be that commentators were divided on whether Obama and other leaders looked good or bad; we've now been at this long enough for these same commentators to reverse their positions depending on the most recent developments.

But there is one group -- a huge one -- for whom none of this really matters: refugees. Estimates run between 4- to 6-million internally displaced Syrians, and another 2 million who have risked it all and fled Syria completely. Photos distributed a few days ago reveal massive subdivision-like encampments of these refugees in surrounding nations -- almost a million to Lebanon, half a million to Jordan, nearly 200,000 to Iraq and half a million to Turkey. One settlement -- Zaatari Camp in Jordan -- has become so large that it forms the fifth largest city in Jordan.

Like Bosnia before it, or even places like Sudan, the reality of refugee numbers such as these has revealed diplomatic failure in the modern era in numbers so vast that it causes our present generation to question the supposed accomplishments of the past.

With a kind of flushed sense of excitement, nations of the world came together in 2005 to launch the new Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and said they would take action to protect people against atrocities from things like chemical weapons, even if it meant violating the historic right of sovereignty. It is difficult to imagine how anything more profound than the sight of children in the throes of agony from chemical weapons attacks could cause such a shock to the global mindset. Yet it did occur, and weeks later we are still reeling from pillar to post in an attempt to cobble together some kind of response.

The ineffectiveness of the UN, R2P, military coalitions, the Criminal Court, and even the great American military machine to develop a plan of action in light of such outrage is a sign of this generation's ineffectiveness.

Perhaps saddest of all has been mute response from citizens worldwide at the thought of some kind of military action against Syria. Too many lengthy conflicts in the past two decades have effectively worn out the Western conscience and its willingness to use force if necessary. As a result, we watch modern citizens vent their outrage at the sight of the dead bodies from the chemical weapon attacks at the same time as they demand no military response to the situation. It's understandable, but it effectively means that the victims of Syria are on their own. We in the West salve our collective conscience by insisting upon diplomatic solutions when none of us would trust Syrian president Assad or Russian president Putin with our lunch money.

The internally displaced in Syria and those 2-million Syrian refugees spread around the region instinctively know this better than we, and they demonstrated their confidence in our abilities by fleeing for their lives. This should give every global citizen pause to ponder and confess that our ideals often proceed far ahead of our resolve.

It is time for a new era of humanitarian diplomacy. The results of our present construct are often miserably predictable. A violation of human rights on a grand scale occurs. Global leaders express their outrage and demand action. Modern media visits the scenes of the crimes and publish their images and commentary on screens worldwide. The UN is charged with managing the crisis, but remains stalemated. People speak about R2P as if it's some kind of action plan, when in fact it can't even be implemented. And the effluent of all this manic ineffectiveness is the lives of the millions who must flee and give up everything they have known.

Let's be clear. It is becoming obvious that the endless diplomatic-military responses under such circumstances are growing increasingly ineffective. Yet for decades, non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent have been warning that just such a catastrophe could occur. We have known for years that Syria had chemical weapons but chose to cross our fingers and hope that some disaster wouldn't occur.

It is time to stop these gut-wrenching exhibitions of inaction by world powers and instead start listening to those humanitarians on the ground. They, by the very reach of their network and local intelligence, remind us that international development and human rights groundwork resourced effectively by international powers can not only warn us of upcoming emergencies but, through the dedication of their efforts, change the game on the ground through education and empowerment long before the political-diplomatic lid blows off.

Responsibility to Protect can only be as effective as our response in advance to the human needs of huge sections of populations who require the essences of human life in order to reshape their countries.

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