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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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