The U.S. is considering arming the Syrian rebels as part of a range of options for ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and installing a democratic government, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
Hagel said "yes" when asked if the U.S. was rethinking its long-standing opposition to providing weapons and training for the fractious Syrian opposition. However, he quickly added that arming the rebels was only one of the several possible courses of action.
"You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will," arm the rebels, Hagel said. "I'm in favor of exploring options" that would achieve the objectives of promoting democracy and ending more than two years of civil war in Syria in which an estimated 70,000 people have been killed and more than a million have become refugees."
The policy of the U.S. will be to explore possibilities to "best accomplish those objectives," Hagel said without giving specifics on what else might be included in the range of options the U.S. was considering.
However, President Obama is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow later this week to press the Russians on ending their aid and support of the Assad regime. Hagel will attend a NATO meeting next month that will consider lifting the European Union's ban on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have pressed the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone over Syria to ground Assad's air forces, but Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned of the difficulties in creating a no-fly zone against Syria's sophisticated air defenses.
Hagel spoke at a joint Pentagon news briefing with his British counterpart Phillip Hammond, the secretary of State for Defense. Both Hagel and Hammond appeared to back away from the "red line" on Syria's use of chemical weapons that Obama has said could trigger U.S. military action.
In recent weeks, Britain, France and Israel have claimed to have found evidence on the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces. U.S. intelligence agencies with "varying degrees of confidence" have backed up the allies' claims.
Both Hagel and Hammond cautioned that the current evidence needed verification, and said that there were "legal issues" involved in coming up with definitive proof.
The White House has also stressed caution in evaluating evidence of the use of chemical weapons, citing the U.S. experience in Iraq where no weapons of mass destruction were found. Hammond sounded a similar note, saying the allies went to war in Iraq based on evidence "which turned out not to be valid."
The Syrian opposition has charged that Assad's forces used chemical weapons in attacks in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Officials of the Assad regime have counter-charged that the rebels used chemical weapons against government forces in an incident in Aleppo. Assad thus far has barred entry to United Nations weapons inspectors seeking to investigate the competing claims.
Despite the lack of definitive proof, Hammond said "the evidence we have is that the (Assad) regime is largely in control" of its chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. "There is no evidence that the regime has lost control of significant weapons sites yet," Hammond said.