As the brutality in Syria begins to spread throughout the region, the United States can no longer afford to choose the time at which it confronts this crisis. The time is now. Bashar-al-Assad’s regime is committing intolerable war crimes against the Syrian people, who are demanding a long overdue change in power. Spilling into its bordering countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, the violence in Syria exhausted at the expense of many innocent people deserves an informed discussion at the very least.

The Syrian struggle, by and large, boils down to a religious dispute. The divide exists within the ranks of Islam, and culminates in a separation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Mohammed founded Islam in the 7th Century and installed the first Islamic state, known as a Caliphate, in 622. A theocracy by definition, that first Islamic state came to be in Medina, which is located in present-day western Saudi Arabia. According to Sunnis, the first four Caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) were legitimate religious leaders. Further, Sunnis considered these Caliphs’ heirs to be lawful.

In contrast, Shiites believe that the fourth Caliph, Ali, is the sole lineal connection to Mohammed. Thus, the only rightful successors to Mohammed are Ali’s heirs. In a historic event for Shiite Muslims, the Twelfth Imam (Islamic leader) disappeared in 931, leaving behind a political vacuum that remained void until Khomeini’s rise in 1978 in Iran. The dispute primarily involves leadership within Islam. Sunnis maintain that religious leaders are qualified and equipped to appoint Caliphs. Shiites demand that Caliphs have a direct lineage to Mohammed, and settle for Ayatollahs as caretakers of the faith in the meantime.

This is the context in which the Syrian conflict is spreading across its borders and further into the Middle East. Iraq is a Shiite majority country, while Turkey and Jordan are both Sunni majority countries. Lebanon, another country bordering Syria, is closely split between Shiite, Sunni, and Christian populations. To make matters worse, states are indirectly aiding respective sides of the Syrian dispute. For example, Iran, a Shiite majority country, is sending assistance to the Assad regime. The Sunni Majority state of Saudi Arabia, for its part, is helping the Syrian rebels. An increasingly grim affair, the war in Syria begs the question; what can be done?

The United States is the world’s foremost power. It’s military is past reproach. With this power, however, comes far more than responsibility. America’s position on the global stage has a stentorian megaphone with which lives can be saved and lost. Although the occasion is rare and enwrapped in wonderment, neoconservatives are correct when they remark that the United States has a duty to influence the world. The Syrian conflict pins two sides against one another; Shiites versus Sunnis. The United States, as the world’s greatest power, should use this as an opportunity to promote free, secular, democracy. As long as we have a global stage, audience, and undivided attention, we cannot forsake it all for passivity.

As the violence in Syria worsens, however, few have stressed the fundamental point that influence is worth exerting in the name of justice. In effect, this might be striking evidence that the political Left in this country has lost its way. Concerning foreign policy, liberals have an impressive history campaigning for justice. Whether in protest against the Vietnam War or the Iraq War, the Left has become reputable for supporting initiatives that champion justice. On this occasion, in Syria, the situation is somewhat different.

First, the United States is not directly involved in the Syrian war. Whereas in Vietnam and Iraq, the Left could effectively promote a negative action of withdrawal, such is not the case here. On the contrary, the U.S. must undertake positive, directed, diplomatic action. This is not to say that American troops ought to be deployed in order to either defend the Syrian rebels or to overthrow the Assad regime. In a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the United States should be willing to acknowledge that both sides display ideological glimpses of the untrue. Stated differently, presented with a struggle between factions X and Y, the United States should promote Z before abstaining from the discussion altogether.

Second, this Syrian conflict inevitably deals with religion. One way or another, Sunni Muslims are fighting against Shiite Muslims. While several other economic, political, and social factors certainly contribute to the Syrian strife, religion cannot be overlooked as its primary contributor. Concerning this subject the political Left can be squeamish at times, but here the case practically presents itself. Killing one another in the name of religion is intolerable, and the United States should unabashedly promote its secular Constitution as a beacon for the rest of the world to observe. No matter one’s religious preference, whether Sunni or Shiite, the state should remain neutral, and America ought to lead that campaign.

Non-interventionists and isolationists alike, while equipped with talking points and historical ammunition, construct rods for their own backs when it comes to Syria. The overriding message that has resonated with such individuals seems to be, “avoid Syria.” That response is simply unsuitable, especially for those who are caught in this fight overseas. Of course, “militarize Syria” is an equally incompatible message with reality. Lost in that binary, regrettably, is the United States’ capacity to use its diplomatic strength to promote a free, secular democracy. This is always an option, and the President should spend every available minute addressing that pursuit. Moreover, the American Left should take up this cause and resurrect the long forgotten Orwellian, Anti-Totalitarian Leftist tradition. Syria is just as it should be, a reminder that certain principles are worth defending and protecting on the world stage.