Ask Yousef Bargash when he might go home to his village of Mahaja in southern Syria and he turns his palms skyward in supplication. The old man says it’s his “main hope,” but his manner implies he won’t be leaving soon. The war is too brutal.

Getting refugees such as Bargash back home from camps and squatters’ apartments in Jordan and other neighboring countries is at the heart of solving the Syria mess. But talking to refugees makes it obvious that this won’t happen unless conditions are more secure across the border. That’s a starting point for thinking about the ruinous Syria war, three years on.

A sound U.S. strategy for Syria begins with the recognition that this is likely to be a long war. On the way to an eventual political settlement, the challenge is to stabilize the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition so that fewer people are killed, Muslim extremists don’t get any stronger and people can begin to go back home.

From a distance, the Zaatari camp looks like a mirage of white tents and trailers amid the rocks and dust of northern Jordan. Inside, it’s a place of ordered misery: The tents and pre-fabricated bungalows are arrayed in numbered dirt streets, with water towers and latrines every few dozen yards. It’s the largest refugee camp in Jordan, with 107,000 residents when I visited Monday, and hundreds more coming every day. Overall, Jordan, with 9 million people, has a staggering 1.3 million Syrians, 630,000 of them having arrived since the war began, according to Brig. Gen. Waddah Hmoud of the Public Security Directorate.

Hmoud, who oversees the camp, has the manner of a big, tough police chief. He works hard to provide for the refugees’ needs, but Jordan’s deeper worry in this crisis is taking care of itself. The war is toxic, and Jordan doesn’t want to get infected. So Hmoud runs a disciplined security and intelligence operation, which starts with a biometric screening as soon as refugees cross the border.

“We are afraid of the radicals,” Hmoud says. There are dozens of tiny mosques, in pre-fab trailers with flimsy loudspeakers for the call to prayer. But they’re watched carefully for trouble.

The Syrian families here struggle for a measure of dignity and, even, fun. There’s a main street in the camp known as the “Champs-Élysées,” because it was built near a French-staffed field hospital. It is lined with shops selling food, clothes, beauty products, even appliances and cellphones. About half of the newer trailers have their own satellite dishes to watch television. It’s hardly paradise: There was a riot here a few weeks ago in which tear gas was used and one person was killed. But it’s just comfortable enough that people aren’t rushing back home.

Looking for ideas about how this humanitarian crisis could be eased, I visited the office of a nongovernmental organization called “Watad” in Amman. Supported by U.S. and Saudi donors, it provides food and medical care inside Syria. It’s now building refugee camps inside, too, so that people will go back home.

Ahmed al-Nasri, the director in Jordan for Watad, has charts and maps on every wall outlining his operations. He maintains three warehouses to stockpile food in the liberated areas of southern Syria, and he’s building a fourth. With other groups, he operates 20 field hospitals inside.

The key is getting this humanitarian aid across the border to Syrian towns and villages that are besieged. His group sends about 1,600 metric tons of flour into Syria each month, up from just 400 tons six months ago. He has built two refugee camps at Shajara in the south, one with 428 tents and the second with 318, and he’s working on a third camp at Mzeireb that he hopes will eventually grow to 5,000 tents.

“We need to help people inside Syria avoid the trap of dependence,” says Bassel Hariri, a young Syrian lawyer from Aleppo who’s negotiating contracts for the relief effort. “The Syrian crisis is going to continue,” says Hariri. “A settlement won’t happen until there is a balance, geographically and politically. Until then, we have to keep Syria alive.”

“Of course we want to go home,” says Khalil Ismail al-Gothani, a refugee with eight kids living in the dust of Zaatari. “But who will protect us?” That’s the heart of the matter, and it’s hard to see an answer that doesn’t include more military support for the Syrian opposition, a question that troubles the Obama administration and worries neighbors such as Jordan.

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