PENTAGON— U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the United States is rethinking its opposition to arming Syrian rebels.
The United States has been sending non-lethal aid to rebels, until now ruling out arming the rebel forces that have for the past two years been fighting the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
At a briefing Thursday, Secretary Hagel said the Obama administration is rethinking that position and considering the full range of options.
“Arming the rebels, that's an option,” he said.
But Hagel said he has not come to a conclusion on whether to recommend to the White House that it is time to start sending weapons to the rebels. He said it is a decision that is receiving careful consideration.
Hagel recently revealed that the U.S. believes, with various degrees of confidence, that Syria has used chemical weapons against its people. He said U.S. officials are assessing the facts and consulting with allies.
“You need the evidence if you're going to exercise certain options, a range of those options. That evidence is particularly important,” Hagel said.
Hagel spoke during a visit to the Pentagon by British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, who said his country will also need to do a thorough fact check before deciding on any action. Hammond indicated Britain does not want to repeat past mistakes.
“U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq, which turned out not to be valid. There is a very strong view that we have to have very clear, very high quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence,” Hammond said.
The U.S. has repeatedly called for Mr. Assad to step down, saying its objectives are to stop violence, bring stability to the region, and transition Syria to a democracy.
U.S. leaders, however, have been hesitant to arm the rebels out of concern that weapons might end up in the hands of militants - a concern shared by Israel and other allies.