What’s at stake in Syria response? Human life and America’s credibility.

Free Syrian Army fighters taking cover as they prepare to join an attack on a Syrian Army base in Damascus … Continued

Free Syrian Army fighters taking cover as they prepare to join an attack on a Syrian Army base in Damascus on Feb. 3, 2013. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

The greatest danger to world peace today is the growing, self-sustaining, vicious circle of violence afflicting the Middle East and North Africa. The danger grows whether the circle is fueled by extremist ideologies or by good intentions.

Before the next round of escalation happens, we must recognize the totality of what is occurring throughout the region and begin taking a much broader approach to work toward a comprehensive peace.

As Congress debates President Obama’s proposal to punish Syria’s Assad regime for the unpardonable, inhuman crime of which it’s accused –massively gassing its own people, including children I respectfully ask that the members consider everything that is happening.

Already, the collateral damage wreaked by both sides in Syria most notably by the government has been appalling. With 100,000 killed, two million refugees already fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and another four million displaced within Syria, the country is in economic free fall and its prospects are nothing short of horrendous.

While it is hard to disagree with the claim that Assad and his regime deserve to be punished for the gas attack, I fear that U.S. military action will create unintended and dangerous consequences, fuel a new cycle of extremism and could place even more Syrians—and Americans— in harm’s way. And if history is any guide, sending cruise missiles to Damascus will do little long-term good and could do a lot of harm.

It could throw Russia and Syria into a closer alliance and push Russia further away from working with the United States. It could encourage Iran to develop its nuclear weapons as the only way to defend itself from similar attack. It could strengthen al-Qaeda, whose jihadist forces are among those battling Assad. It could create more refugees who already are overwhelming the resources of neighboring states. And the growth of radicals in a failed Syria could endanger Israel.

A different way must, and can, be found.

Syria has become an arena in which every aspect of all of the regional conflicts is involved. Therefore, any effort to solve the conflicts in Syria presents both the opportunity and the challenge to unravel all of these conflicts.

We should start with this premise: It is in the best interests of the United States, Russia, Syria’s neighbors and even Iran for Syria not to degenerate into a failed nation.

The United States and Russia have drifted farther apart, as each side snipes at the other harkening back to the days of the Cold War.

The United States has no interest in radical Muslims gaining the upper hand in Syria. But it cannot abide the tyrannical Assad regime.

With its own restive Muslim population, Russia has no interest in radical Islamists imported from Syria. That’s one reason the Russians are backing the Assad regime. Assad claims he is the only person who stands against the extremists.

That gives Russia and the United States common interests in finding a solution. President Obama needs to acknowledge Putin’s status as the leader of a major power with interests in Syria. Pressing Moscow to cooperate in mitigating, if not resolving, this crisis will best serve American interests.

This should be on the table as Putin and Obama meet during this week’s G-20 conference in St. Petersburg.

These two leaders should be working together to try to reduce the polarization between their respective Muslim allies in the region: Sunni— especially Saudi Arabia—and Shia—especially Iran and Hezbollah.

Both nations should be working together to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the thorn that has helped keep the region in turmoil for more than a half-century.

The region needs to see a concerted outside effort to address the humanitarian crisis that is threatening Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon with Syrian refugees.

Caring for those refugees, compensating the relatives of the dead and preventing more calamities for the innocent would go much farther in reconciling the region than another round of missiles.

What is needed is nothing less than a new post-Cold War strategy where the United States and Russia understand that continued turmoil and sectarian divisions in the Middle East are dangerous for everyone.

Obama and Putin need to agree to a level of statesmanship at least to put aside their differences to achieve a mutually desired outcome. That, of course, will not be easy. But far more difficult is contending with a failed Syria with sectarian conflict spilling all over the region.

Yes, killing 1,400 people with sarin gas is a heinous offense, and the perpetrators must one day be called to justice. But religion will tell you that addressing the needs of the living are more important than avenging the dead.

So right now, to work toward a political solution that protects the living and brings a chance for peace is far more important— and would do so much more to enhance America’s credibility— than sending a few missiles in retaliation for the dead.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the Founder of Cordoba Initiative, a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations and the author of Moving the Mountain: A New Vision of Islam in America.

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  • Ibrahim Hayani

    Anything less than the removal of the essentially illegitimate (in the sense that it is NOT the product of free and transparent elections), and obviously murderous, Assad’s regime would not only be futile but also a dangerous complicity in the deliberate and systematic destruction of Syria. The criminal Assad’s regime is just that, criminal. The innocent people of Syria have endured enough of the brutality and barbarity of this thuggish regime. It takes a blind fool to think that peace, freedom, and social harmony could be achieved in Syria without the removal this cancerous regime. It is the moral and “civilizational” responsibility of all freedom-and-justice-loving people to help the noble people of Syria get rid of this barbaric regime whose very existence is an insult to both human dignity and decency. Once this murderous regime is removed, the people of Syria will be in a position to establish the kind of democratic system that would allow them not only to regain their freedom, and with it their dignity, but also to restore social harmony and, hopefully, economic prosperity.

  • Hajj Muhammad

    I would like to congratulate Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on his courage, insightful analysis, and commitment to peace, all of which are vigorously expressed in his letter. We cannot claim to uphold international norms by violating international law with a punitive strike.

  • ItMatters1

    I join many other Americans as well as many other countries who are against our military involvement in Syria. Enough is enough with wars in the Middle East while our country is failing with our education, roads, bridges, electrical infrastructure, etc. If the people are bombed, shot, or chemically killed, they are still dead. I prefer Russia’s suggestion after Kerry’s suggestion to confiscate all the chemicals and give them to the international community.

  • ItMatters1

    And why is the US always to be the world’s police. That needs to change.