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US reconsiders arming Syria rebels


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the US is rethinking its opposition to arming rebel forces in Syria following reports from Washington that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons against the rebels.


The United States is reconsidering the possibility of supplying weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.

President Barack Obama’s administration has previously opposed arming the outgunned rebels, with the US reluctant to be drawn into the conflict and fearful that weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremist groups.

But with suspicions mounting that Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons in their battle to regain control of Syria, Hagel told reporters during a press conference at the Pentagon that the US is no longer ruling out supplying arms to the rebels.

“That's an option,” Hagel said when asked if the US was now reconsidering sending weapons to Syria.

“These are not static situations,” he continued. “And you must always look at different options based on the reality on the ground, based on what you want to achieve, based on the future, based on our international partners.”

UK also considering its options

It is the first time a senior member of the US government has acknowledged that the country is reconsidering the possibility of arming the rebels.

However, Hagel stressed that nothing has so far been decided. “You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will,” he said. “It doesn't mean that the President has decided on anything.”

The defense secretary was speaking as part of a joint press conference with his British counterpart Philip Hammond, who said that the UK had also not ruled out arming Syria’s rebel forces.

“We've kept all our options open,” he said. “We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it's something we will not do. “

For the moment, an EU-imposed ban would prevent the UK from supplying arms to Syria, but Hammond added that the UK would review the situation” when that ban expires in a few weeks' time”.

Chemical weapons a ‘game-changer’

The apparent strategic re-think follows the White House’s recent disclosure of mounting evidence from intelligence agencies indicating that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons in Syria, in particular the lethal nerve gas Sarin.

Obama told a White House press conference last Friday that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer”. On the heels of Hagel’s comments, the president seemed to evoke a wait-and-see attitude on a Thursday trip to Mexico.

“As we've seen evidence of further bloodshed, potential use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, what I've said is that we're going to look at all options," Obama told reporters, while sounding a note of caution.

"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."

Diplomatic deadlock

Meanwhile, as the US mulled its military options over Syria, UN leader Ban Ki-moon met with representatives from the UN permanent Security Council members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - on Thursday in an effort to re-ignite stalled attempts at finding a diplomatic solution to the Syria conflict.

But the talks were overshadowed by growing speculation that the UN's Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is on the verge of resigning, frustrated by the diplomatic deadlock in bringing an end to the conflict, which the UN estimates has already led to the deaths of over 70,000 people.

The seasoned diplomat informed 20 UN officials earlier this week that he is resigning but didn't give a departure date, a UN diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told the AP news agency this week.

The diplomat said Brahimi would likely be gone by the end of the month.

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