By Jeremy Herb
The Obama administration is rethinking its opposition to providing arms to the Syrian rebels, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
Hagel said no decisions have been made, but confirmed reports that the administration is considering taking the new step of arming Syrian rebels in the wake of the possible use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“You look and rethink all options. It doesn’t mean you do, or you will,” Hagel said at a joint Pentagon press conference with British Secretary of State for Defense Philip Hammond.
President Obama said at a press conference Tuesday that confirmation Assad’s regime crossed his “red line” would prompt him to consider a “range of options” that have not yet been used.
“I’m in favor of exploring options and seeing what is the best option,” Hagel said.
Last year, Obama rejected a proposal to provide arms to vetted Syrian rebel groups that was backed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
There is concern about providing arms to rebel groups because the opposition is splintered and contains groups affiliated with al Qaeda.
The White House’s disclosure last week that it has intelligence assessments that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons have sparked new calls for arming rebel groups and establishing a no-fly zone.
The administration is proceeding with caution toward military steps, however, citing the problems with intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
At Thursday’s press conference, Hammond referenced Iraq as a
reason why the British government agreed with the Obama administration that more
evidence was needed of chemical weapons use in Syria.
“U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq, which turned out to be not valid,” Hammond said. “There is a very strong view we have to have very clear, very high quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence.”