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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.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / February 10, 2013

A Free Syrian Army fighter sits behind an antiaircraft weapon in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian rebels brought their fight within a mile of the heart of Damascus on Friday, seizing Army checkpoints and cutting a key highway.

AP

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Last week, the world was given an invaluable peek into an internal debate of the Obama administration over whether to intervene in Syria.

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In response to a question during a Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the president had vetoed a secret plan last summer – supported by his top national security team – to arm selective opposition groups now fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Sen. John McCain then asked a difficult but rhetorical question of Mr. Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey:

“How many more have to die [in Syria] before you recommend military action?”

Nearly two years after the pro-democracy uprising began, more than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria, according to United Nations estimates. And the pace of killing has picked up as Mr. Assad sees less risk of any foreign intervention. Some 5,000 Syrians now flee daily into neighboring states, creating a refugee population of nearly 800,000. Another 2.5 million are internally displaced.

Top UN staff have asked for Assad and his top people to be tried for war crimes. And UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who likens the conflict to the Holocaust, cited a doctrine endorsed by the General Assembly in 2005 when he stated last month: “The ‘responsibility to protect’ applies everywhere and all the time.

That doctrine was President Obama’s rationale for the US intervention in Libya, an action that prevented the slaughter of many anti-Qaddafi people in Benghazi. He has also sent troops to Africa to help the hunt for Joseph Kony’s Lord's Resistance Army. But whatever the extent of the president’s humanitarian impulse, it remains overridden by other considerations.

“How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” said Mr. Obama in an interview with The New Republic magazine.

Last spring, Obama clearly stated that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” But he qualified that “core” responsibility by adding: “That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not.”

For those who seek arms for Syrian rebels, the US is the obvious choice. Its weapons, communications, and surveillance could turn the tide of the war. And now we learn that top officials from the Pentagon to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were in favor of such aid.

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