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posted: 5/6/2013 5:00 PM

Obama sails a dangerous strait

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At a news conference marking 100 days into his second term in office, President Barack Obama said, "What's happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community."

It's true. International cooperation is nearly absent. Meanwhile, 70,000 Syrian citizens have been killed, many in the most brutal ways. Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force has bombed citizens waiting for bread outside bakeries. His army's snipers have picked off children.

And Syria may be a portend of things to come: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres recently told a Washington, D.C., audience: "We are unprepared for what is to come. ... The international community has lost its ability to stop conflict. ... The very nature of human conflict is changing." He estimated that 10 million Syrians, half the nation's prewar population, will need humanitarian aid.

In dealing with the Syrian civil war, Obama faces a problem he deals with at home: A general unwillingness to cooperate -- even for the common good. China and Russia used their absolute veto in the U.N. to stop U.S.- and Western-led initiatives to place international sanctions on Assad's regime. Russia supplies Syria with weapons and jets, and in January sent warships just off Syria's coast. And no nation wants to intervene militarily in Syria, including our ally Great Britain, even though the Arab world is fearful the conflict might spread.

Of course, some see the Syrian chaos as an opportunity. The Iranian regime, no friend of the Arab Spring, has troops in Syria and also equips Assad's army. After Obama spoke, the leader of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that he will not let Syria fall into Israel's or Islamic radical's hands. Any land action -- other than by people of Nasrallah's Shia faith -- will be met with resistance. London's Guardian newspaper reports that, together, Iran and Hezbollah have about 50,000 troops in Syria.

Complicating matters further are the rebels themselves. They are but tenuously united, and they're not all good guys -- al-Qaida is active and well organized among them. Nor do the rebels have overwhelming support -- in fact, a sizable percentage of Syrians support Assad. A new Pew Research poll found that, except for Jordan, Arabs oppose sending military aid to the rebels. And, perhaps understandably, our ally Israel does not want the rebels armed at all.

To his credit, Obama has done his "due diligence" on the rebels. The CIA has been vetting the rebels to separate the good guys from the bad. It has advised nations funneling weapons to the rebels about whom they shouldn't arm.

And the president is being proactive. During his news conference Obama listed a few of his actions taken on Syria. He is organizing the international community; he has made the U.S. the biggest supplier of nonlethal aid to the rebels; he ordered our ambassador to defy a travel ban and visit the rebels early on; he has applied U.S. sanctions on Syria.

He has also defined the "red line" -- chemical and biological weapons -- and what defines crossing it. Although the U.S. intelligence community has some confidence that chemical weapons were used inside Syria, we still don't know who used them, in what quantity or when they were used. To mobilize the international community (as well as the American public), Obama knows we cannot have a repeat of Iraq's missing WMDs.

The red line has become a "red flag" for President Obama's opponents. Misreading the term (and ignoring the president's other actions), Sen. John McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "The president drew a red line on chemical weapons, thereby giving a green light to Bashar Assad to do anything short of that."

Foreign Policy magazine ran an article titled, "The Angst in Foggy Bottom." It quoted three anonymous State Department officials who want Obama to arm the rebels. Yet at the article's end, one admits, "This is a tricky one. And I have a feeling that, like a lot of these things, there is no good answer." Yes, it's tricky, because it's crucial to distinguish between evidence of use of chemical weapons and ironclad proof of who used them.

President Obama says we need definitive proof that Assad has crossed the red line. For one thing, if there's any wiggle room, Russia will likely claim the rebels used them, making it more difficult -- and dangerous -- to stop the conflict or provide humanitarian aid.

Obama must maneuver between the Scylla of precipitous engagement and the Charybdis of ineffective intervention. Getting control of the chemical weapons requires boots on the ground. Stratfor, a private intelligence company, says there are no airstrikes that could do the job without ground troops.

Obama is considering arming the rebels. He is also sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to side with the rebels in a peaceful transition. Instead of marching to war, Obama is working to build an international coalition that will compel Assad to leave. Russia can play a crucial role, just like China in regard to North Korea.

The diplomacy is critical. The administration deserves support, not carping.

2013, United Features Syndicate

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