The Syria refugee crisis continues to get worse and worse. Already some 4 million people have left the country, and that figure continues to grow. The Washington Post quoted one Syrian as saying, “Everyone I know is leaving. It is as though all of Syria is emptying.”

The impact of this mass population movement is being felt not only in neighboring states but also in Europe and even in the United States, which is now dealing with the challenging of providing safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees, knowing full well that ISIS could use this outflow to smuggle its operatives into Western countries.

While Europeans and others argue about which country should take how many refugees, we are losing sight of the real solution — which is to do something meaningful about the conditions which are driving so many people out of Syria. Ever since the start of full-blown fighting in 2011, I and others have been urging the creation of “safe zones” along the borders with Turkey and Jordan where Syrians would be safe from attack. (See, for example, this article I co-authored with Michael Doran in 2012.)

If this advice had been taken, the refugee crisis might have been averted. The U.S. could have committed to a version of Operation Provide Comfort, the American operation which protected the Kurdish region in Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s wrath from 1991 onward. Even if this operation had not hastened Bashar Assad’s demise — which it likely would have done — it still would have created a way for people to remain in Syria without risking death from barrel bombs. It likely also would have averted the rise of Islamic State or at least curbed its influence.

But of course, as we know, Obama did not take this advice. Focused on the risk of slightly greater American intervention, he ignored the risks of non-intervention. It is more difficult than ever now to establish these safe zones, and will require greater American and allied commitment than in the past, when moderate rebel forces in the Free Syrian Army were much stronger than they are today.

Empty rhetorical posturing about creating an “ISIS-free” zone in northern Syria in cooperation with Turkey has not accomplished anything, and will not accomplish anything. The U.S. can hardly rely on the Turks to police such a safe zone on their own (they would likely use this as an excuse to go after the Kurdish YPG militia), nor can it depend on the “4 or 5” rebel fighters that the U.S. has actually sent into the fight in the last year (as Gen. Lloyd Austin of Central Command admitted to a shocked Senate Armed Services Committee today). Creating such a safe zone would require much greater support for relatively moderate forces on the ground (so far the YPG has been the most effective), combined with a U.S.-led no fly zone and the probable insertion of a multinational stabilization force which could include Turkish, Arab, European, and, yes, American involvement.

Simply to state the requirements is to make clear how unpalatable this option is. It becomes all the harder to implement now that Russia is rushing into the Syria vacuum with its own armed forces; enforcing a no-fly zone once Russian warplanes are flying over Syria becomes a dicey proposition. But even though it would have been infinitely easier to create safe zones a few years ago, it still remains possible. Indeed, for all of the challenges of doing so now, there is no better alternative on offer.

If the West doesn’t do something to curb the full fury of the Syrian civil war — which is being driven at least as much by Assad as by ISIS — it will continue to deal with the human and strategic consequences of this ongoing disaster. And that includes massive refugee flows.

Syrian civil war
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