The civil war in Syria was always a threat to the entire Middle East, but that threat is now tilting into reality. Syria is firing into Turkey, its northern neighbor and a member of NATO, and Turkey is firing back. This could easily become a wider war if the international community doesn’t act.

It seems fair, at this point, to believe that this conflict has only one resolution, and that is with President Bashar Assad out of office, either of his own volition or at the end of a rope. What is important for the United States, the Middle East, Europe and especially Russia is for them to do all they can to ensure that Assad exits in a way that produces the smoothest transition possible.

Right now, events are moving in the opposite direction. Any sustained attack on Turkey could bring NATO directly into the conflict, a threat that, by some assessments, is the precise warning that Syria is issuing by lobbing shells onto Turkish soil: Stay out.

Yet NATO has announced its readiness to defend Turkey in the midst of artillery exchanges, while the situation within Syria is intolerable and getting worse. We are liable to be drawn into the conflict sooner or later if Assad does not hastily make his exit, so it should be our task – but mainly that of European NATO members – to hasten the day.

France has pushed for a no-fly zone in Syria, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States is weighing that option. President Obama has resisted calls to arm the Syrian rebels, fearing that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, and some analysts believe the infusion of more weapons could widen the war into a regional conflict.

The United States has provided non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad rebels and, according to the New York Times, sent a military task force to neighboring Jordan.

Plainly, there are risks in any course of action, but there are risks from taking no action, as NATO becomes drawn ever closer to the conflict. The United States needs to be prepared to accept a bigger role in ending the conflict between Syria and the rebels by acting to tilt the advantage in favor of those who decline to live any longer under the thumb of a murderous regime.

Russia, meanwhile, needs to withdraw its support of Assad, rather than propping him up and, in so doing, pushing the Middle East toward a catastrophic war. Its role needs to be to help clear the way to a resolution of this conflict. That can’t be done by shielding the man whose ruthlessness brought it on.

It is unfortunate that this matter is coming to a head just as the presidential election is – Republican nominee Mitt Romney says he would arm the rebels – but it is obviously an important issue and its place in the campaign is inevitable. Both candidates need to handle this issue responsibly and avoid, as much as possible, further raising the risk of a wider war in the Middle East.