Hagel: Arming Syrian rebels is an option

Defense secretary is first U.S. official to publicly admit considering arming rebels

Topics: Syria, Chuck Hagel, philip hammond, syrian rebels, Middle East, Bashar al-Assad,

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel became the first official to publicly confirm that the U.S. is considering arming Syrian rebels. In a Pentagon press conference he said, “Arming the rebels – that’s an option. You look at and rethink all options. It doesn’t mean you do or you will … It doesn’t mean that the president has decided on anything.”

The New York Times noted that “both his tone and his body language indicated that the assessment process would be careful and deliberate.” For some months the Obama administration has called the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime a “red line” that would prompt military intervention. However, claims that chemical weapons have been used have left Western governments equivocating over action. As the Guardian noted, “On Thursday the British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, said the west would have to wait for any further chemical attacks to be sure of Syrian government involvement, because previously gathered evidence had begun to degrade and could not prove a link.”

Via the New York Times:

Administration officials and American 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 American 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 al-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.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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