A version of these comments were delivered at the Migration Policy Institute, January 14, 2013.

Leaving aside the continuing Congo and Sudan atrocities, the two-year Syrian humanitarian disaster—with already about 10–15 percent of the population displaced—is the biggest such crisis since the second Iraq war. There is an irony here. Syria received the brunt of the Iraqi exodus, and did reasonably well in managing that disaster. Indeed, in 2009, I was part of a delegation that visited Assad to discuss the needs of Iraqi refugees, and at that time he was much the humanitarian!

The Syrian situation is fraught with enormous uncertainty, and only short-term response prevails. No one knows when Assad will go away, or where he will flee to; he apparently is not listening to the cognoscenti who tell him that he is finished. The unending fighting is producing an ever-growing number of internally displaced Syrians as well as refugees. The UN now expects that Syrian refugees this year will reach one million—an increase of some 400,000. Millions more will struggle for survival in violence-wracked areas inside Syria, mostly dependent on the help of outside support, delivered by courageous Syrian and foreign organizations.

What is equally dismaying is that, even if Assad departs soon, the humanitarian crisis may continue, and even get worse. There is a genuine fear of vastly increased sectarian violence in Assad’s absence. One also has to ask how Syria will be able to function as a state, with the government apparatus so broken, the economic foundation devastated, and many of its best people going or gone. That is why a negotiated transfer of power has been held as so important, however unlikely. We may well see few refugees going home while many non-Muslims seek asylum, but also a greater possibility of neighboring countries closing their doors to more refugees.

Given the uncertainties, the United States and other concerned nations must think in terms of a larger political and humanitarian emergency of uncertain duration, requiring multi-year, large-scale assistance in Syria as well as to refuges in neighboring countries. Such an undertaking obviously will not be easy for the world to plan, and it will be even harder to carry out. And, beyond that, there will be the huge financial requirements of reconstruction needed in Syria.

There also will need to be an active diplomacy to keep the borders of neighboring countries open, and funding to back that up. The war has been corrosive on the political stability of Syria’s neighbors: Jordan has had its resources severely strained, and is in great domestic trouble; Lebanon is not far behind.

All of which brings us to the problem of money. So far, the international humanitarian response has been lagging. That is a euphemism: current assistance levels are woefully inadequate. Where is the UN going to get the more than one billion dollars it recently says is needed just for the next six months? Even previous, far-lesser appeals have fallen short.

You would think that the United States—which has rightly or wrongly avoided involvement in the Syrian war, leaving it to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help the resistance—would at least take the lead in providing humanitarian aid. While America’s humanitarian aid is important, and is larger than that of other countries, high-level U.S. effort has not been noticeable, proselytizing to other countries has been mostly absent, and the $200 million we have so far provided is not impressive. I may be unfair or uninformed, but I doubt it.

The United States has an immediate opportunity to improve its level of help: the one-day pledging conference in Kuwait, called for and presided over by Ban Ki Moon, at the end of this month. Hopefully, the administration can find some way to scrounge out more significant funds or indicate that it is going to Congress for a special appropriation. Such a move would also facilitate an essential accompanying American effort to get other governments to pony up more funds at the pledging conference, particularly the Gulf’s Arab states, which have been quick to provide a continuous flow of arms to the opposition. Hopefully, we will see our new secretary of state lead the delegation, or some other highly distinguished American, such as Bill Clinton, and it will mark the beginning of a sustained high-level effort, here and abroad, to better help beleaguered Syrians and the front-line states.

Without such an effort, the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria seems doomed to get only much, much worse.

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