Arming Syria’s Rebels Now an ‘Option,’ Says Pentagon Chief

Spencer Ackerman
May 2, 2013


Chuck Hagel in Saudi Arabia

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Photo: Department of Defense

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed today that the Obama administration is reconsidering its opposition to providing lethal weapons to the Syrian opposition.

“Arming the rebels, that’s an option,” Hagel said in a Pentagon press conference with his British counterpart, Philip Hammond. That confirmed a report from the Washington Post earlier this week that after reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, the Obama administration was considering a deeper involvement in the country’s bloody civil war.

Judging from Hagel’s comments, the administration is nowhere near a decision, let alone a specific package of weapons to send to the beleaguered rebels. The administration is “constantly evaluating” its options in Syria, Hagel said, waving aside a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr about uniformed U.S. military opposition to the move. Nor did Hagel, who has been skeptical of what he’s called a “lengthy and uncertain” war in Syria, express any enthusiasm for the measure.

“I’m in favor of exploring options,” Hagel said, when asked his personal view of arming the rebels.

U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal today that their experience dealing with Syrian rebel forces over a $250 million package of nonlethal aid has given them greater visibility about the myriad factions in Syria — and their relative trustworthiness. “We can see how it can be done and we know who we’re dealing with,” an anonymous official told the paper. Yet few analysts believe that shipping a panoply of weapons to the Syrian rebels will tip the balance of the war inexorably against dictator Bashar Assad.

While it remains unclear what President Obama will do in response to a possible violation of his “red line” against chemical weapons use, the administration has put its weight behind verifying that such an attack took place, at Assad’s behest. The Journal further reported that U.S. spy satellites are trained on suspected chemical-weapons sites; and the Syrian opposition has collected “a dead bird, leaves, urine, hair and soil samples for testing,” as well as blood samples, something first reported by Danger Room. According to the Journal, it took 13 days for the blood samples to reach U.S. analysts, running the risk of degraded evidence.

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