09/07/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2013

What's at Stake in Syria Response? Human Life and America's Credibility.

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

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
an-assault/> 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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared in the Washington Post on September 6, 2013.