Hagel: U.S. rethinking possibly arming rebels

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.

Rebels are fiercely assaulted

Syrian forces carried out what antigovernment activists said were furious assaults against insurgent enclaves Thursday, attacking rebels ensconced in a seaport near Russia's naval station and apparently destroying a historic bridge in the contested western city of Deir al-Zour, the New York Times reported. The new fighting may have left dozens of people dead just in the area of the seaport, Baniyas, and a nearby village, Bayda, according to activists affiliated with two anti-government groups. Some activists said more than 100 were killed in Bayda, including entire families.

Syria judged a hard air target

International military action against Syria's government over its alleged use of chemical weapons would run up against one of the Middle East's most formidable air defenses, a system bolstered in recent years by top-of-the-line Russian hardware, the Associated Press reported. Syria, experts say, possesses one of the most robust air defense networks in the region, with multiple surface-to-air missiles providing overlapping coverage of key areas in combination with thousands of anti-aircraft guns capable of engaging attacking aircraft at lower levels.

Hagel: U.S. rethinking possibly arming rebels 05/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013 10:52pm]

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