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US reconsiders ban on arming Syrian rebels

White House looks at options, Hagel confirms

Residents of Raqqa Province in Syria inspected damage reportedly caused by shelling by forces loyal to President Assad.

Hamid Khatib/REUTERS

Residents of Raqqa Province in Syria inspected damage reportedly caused by shelling by forces loyal to President Assad.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed Thursday that the Obama administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels in Syria’s civil war, although he said that no decisions had been made.

“You look at and rethink all options,’’ Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference after being asked whether the administration was reassessing its stance on providing weapons to the rebels.

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He was joined by his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, whose government was early among close US allies to identify the possible use of chemical weapons during the civil war.

Although Hagel was the first senior US official to officially describe the administration’s decision to reassess providing arms to the opposition fighters, he emphasized that the process ‘‘doesn’t mean you do or you will.’’ He said, however, that ‘‘arming the rebels — that’s an option.’’

Pressed for his own view, Hagel said he had not decided.

“Any country, any power, any international coalition, in partnership, is going to continue to look at options, how best to accomplish those objectives,’’ Hagel said.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday in Mexico City, President Obama said his administration is looking at every option to end the bloodshed in Syria.

Obama said his administration is proceeding cautiously as it looks at options, to ensure that what it does is helpful to the situation.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops backed by progovernment gunmen swept into a Sunni village in the mountains near the Mediterranean coast Thursday, killing dozens of people and torching homes, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people were killed in the violence in Bayda, a village outside the city of Banias. It cited witnesses who said some of the dead were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.

Syria’s civil war has largely split the country down religious lines, and the violence in Bayda appeared to have sectarian overtones. The village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country’s rebel movement, while most of the surrounding villages are home to members of President Bashar Assad’s ­Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Hammond said Britain was constrained from providing ­lethal assistance to the rebels under a European Union arms ban, although that prohibition expires in a few weeks.

Both Hammond and Hagel stressed that policy should focus on stopping the violence and helping Syria transition to a democracy.

Administration officials and US military leaders had previously focused public discussions on the reasons not to arm the rebels, among them the failure to identify leaders who are committed to a unified, democratic Syria that respects minority rights, and the fear that US weapons could wind up in the hands of militants.

The debate over arming the rebels has resurfaced since the White House disclosed last week that intelligence agencies believed that there had been small-scale use of chemical weapons by the ­Assad regime.

While supplying arms does not directly address the threat of chemical weapons, it would bolster the rebels in their fight against the regime. It would also be a way for the White House to look responsive, while waiting for more conclusive evidence of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and without committing its own military to the conflict.

Another factor in the administration’s thinking, a senior official said, is its growing confidence in General Salim Idriss, the commander of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council. A German-trained former professor, Idriss defected from the Syrian Army last summer.

In recent weeks, Idriss has impressed US officials with his moderate instincts, his commitment to inclusiveness, and his pledge to reject extremist elements like Al Nusra, a group that has links to Al Qaeda.

Last fall, Obama rejected a proposal to arm carefully vetted elements of the opposition that originated with David H. Petraeus, who was the CIA director.

The proposal was supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Hagel’s predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, as well as by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey.

Even if Obama approves a plan to provide weapons, a senior administration official said, it would probably not include such weapons or anti-tank weapons.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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