It is nearly certain that chemical weapons killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus in Syria.
This has sparked a frenzy of activity and a possible military response. Parliaments are being recalled, warships and bomber aircraft are making their way towards the Middle East, and the focus may once again shift from the suffering on the ground to the political quarrels between leaders and capitals.
This week saw the two-millionth Syrian refugee registered by the United Nations. Over the past 10 days, I have met some of these refugees, who have fled, exhausted, to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
All we can offer them is a tent in an overcrowded camp or a mattress in an improvised collective shelter, yet they are still relieved and thankful: “Here at least there is security and food. There, we saw only destruction, despair and death,” one father told me. “Hope itself has left Syria.”
He had fled overnight with his wife, six children and mother-in-law. This was their first night among more than 100 000 fellow refugees in Zaatari camp in Jordan.
In more than two years of war, there has been no relief or protection for any of the civilians in his neighbourhood in Dara, and there is still no help in sight. While waiting to cross the Jordanian border, he said they heard rumours about thousands of people dying from chemical weapons in the north. “Countless more will flee if the attacks on civilians continue and no help is received in the war zones,” he said.
The stories were the same from all the refugees I met. More than 800 days and nights of atrocities and little or no access for overstretched humanitarian groups to countless besieged communities left only one possible outcome: a forced exodus of massive proportions. The Syrian catastrophe is, beyond doubt, the worst war since the turn of the millennium. Instead of collective pressure from regional and global powers to end the war crimes and demand humanitarian access for those in need, external actors fuel the fire.
I have been witness to most major wars and disaster zones of this generation, but have not seen such a pitiful lack of coherent international action. This is no natural disaster. It is a man-made catastrophe, and man can stop it.
Scores of refugees have been received by Syria’s four generous neighbours, and it is critical that borders remain open so that Syrian civilians can flee. Syrian children must have access to education so they can reach their full potential. We must work to support host communities and all refugees must get sufficient support until they can return in safety.
We must prevent displacement by providing aid where it is needed inside Syria. The millions of people who have been displaced, and the millions more inside Syria, must all have access to relief and protection before they are forced from the country.
All is not lost. I recently asked students what they wanted to do after school is over. Many wanted to be doctors, others business people, engineers or teachers. No child said they wanted to be fighters, militants or extremists. There is still hope. But time is running out.
To deal with a crisis of this scale, the international community must unite. We know it can work. The Syrian government co-operated when UN Security Council members united to demand access for UN chemical weapons inspectors to affected areas in Damascus.
Such a consensus is now required to lift restrictions on humanitarian access and ensure an adequate response to the humanitarian needs of Syrians inside the country, and of those who have already fled.
Jan Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs