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The Monitor's View

Obama's hidden nonplan to arm rebels in Syria

News that Obama vetoed a plan by his senior security staff to arm Syrian rebels reveals the extent of his humanitarian impulse. But he must also protect the new UN doctrine of a 'responsibility to protect' by being more open about his Syrian strategy.

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But not Obama. It’s not that he is doing nothing. Last week, he announced another $155 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. He’s increased sanctions on the regime and ordered that atrocities be documented for future court trials. He’s also put pressure on Russia to stop vetoing UN Security Council proposals aimed at removing Assad.

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Such actions signal that Obama sees the fighting there not only as a civil war but a case of a state committing terror against its own people. His prudence in not doing more is driven by domestic concerns and his worldview of the US as only one player on the world scene.

But as last week’s news shows, the US is still seen by top American security experts as an indispensable leader in the relatively new global hope to prevent mass killings. Short of arming the rebels, Obama needs to repair the damage to this “responsibility to protect” doctrine by being more transparent on his strategy toward Syria.

His reasoning for vetoing the plan to arm rebels may lie in the US mistake made in 1979 to arm Islamic fighters in Afghanistan battling the Soviet occupation. The unforeseen consequence was the rise of Al Qaeda. In Syria today, many anti-Assad rebels now include jihadists.

But Obama does need to answer Senator McCain’s question. What is the “red line” for a humanitarian invention?

The president has defined a “red line” for the possibility of Assad moving or using his arsenal of chemical weapons. And he backed Israel’s aerial attack last month on a convoy of missiles heading from Syria to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

For the sake of preserving credibility to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, he needs to spell out the trigger point for tougher action in Syria, such as arming rebels. How much support among Americans and other countries is needed to act, for example?

If Syria becomes another Rwanda, with hundreds of thousands of people killed, can the global community ever again reclaim the principles of humanitarian intervention involving a state killing its own people?

After he intervened in Libya, the president said that not to do so “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” But Libya was also a test for the world in how much it shares the value of preserving life.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine is in its infant stages. Someday it may become as accepted as the well-established agreement on chemical weapons and other international pacts. The doctrine should not be debated in secret only to have such high-level concerns revealed haphazardly in a Senate hearing.

If humanity is to know that it shares common values, it must also share in debating them.

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