WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels who have been locked in a civil war with the Syrian regime for more than two years, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday, becoming the first top U.S. official to publicly acknowledge the reassessment.
During a Pentagon news conference with British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, Hagel said arming the rebels was one option the administration was considering in consultation with allies. But he said he personally had not decided if it would be a wise or appropriate move.
"Arming the rebels — that's an option," he said. "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."
Hammond said his country was still bound by a European Union arms embargo on Syria, but he said Britain would look at the issue again in a few weeks when the ban expires and make a decision based on the evolving situation on the ground.
Hagel's comments affirmed what had been a quiet but emerging dialogue within the Obama administration: That arming the rebels might be preferable amid growing indications that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people, an action President Barack Obama characterized as a "game-changer" that would have "enormous consequences."
Asked for his thoughts, Obama said Thursday that the United States will continue to evaluate its options.
"We want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we're doing is actually helpful to the situation as opposed to making it more deadly or more complex," Obama said at a news conference in Mexico.