WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed Thursday that the Obama administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels in Syria’s civil war, although he said that no decisions had been made.
“You look at and rethink all options,” Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference after being asked whether the administration was reassessing its stance on providing weapons to the rebels.
He was joined by his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, whose government was early among close U.S. allies to identify the possible use of chemical weapons during the civil war.
Although Hagel was the first senior U.S. official to officially describe the administration’s decision to reassess providing arms to the opposition fighters, he emphasized that the process “doesn’t mean you do or you will.” He said, however, that “arming the rebels — that’s an option.”
Both his tone and his body language indicated that the assessment process would be careful and deliberate.
Hammond said Britain was constrained from providing lethal assistance to the rebels under a European Union arms ban, although that prohibition expires in a few weeks.
Both military leaders stressed that policy should focus on stopping the violence and helping Syria transition to a democracy.
Administration officials and U.S. military leaders had previously focused public discussions on the many reasons not to arm the rebels, among them the failure to identify leaders who are committed to a unified, democratic Syria that respects minority rights, and the fear that U.S. weapons could wind up in the hands of militants who might turn them against Western interests.
The debate over arming the rebels has resurfaced since the White House disclosed last week that the nation’s intelligence agencies believed that there had been small-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad.
While supplying arms does not directly address the threat of chemical weapons, it would bolster the rebels in their fight against the regime. It would also be a way for the White House to look responsive, while waiting for more conclusive evidence of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and without committing its own military to the conflict.
Another factor in the administration’s thinking, a senior official said, is its growing confidence in Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council.