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.