US and Britain consider arming Syrian rebels

The bar is set high, but the US could begin providing body armor, night-vision goggles, rifles, and other basic arms to Syria's rebels.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, accompanied by British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond speaks during their joint news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, where they talked about Syria.

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed yesterday that the US was reexamining its consistent opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, though cautioned that considering action was not the same as taking action.

“You look at and rethink all options," Secretary Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference, according to The New York Times.

Hagel is the first official to publicly acknowledge the shift that most observers assumed was happening, based on comments earlier this week by President Obama. After Hagel's press conference, the president said that the defense secretary's announcement coincided with a view he had held for "months," according to The Daily Star in Lebanon.

The US already provides communication gear and basic rations to Syrian rebels, and could begin including body armor, night-vision goggles, rifles, and other basic arms, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond appeared alongside Hagel at the press conference, and said that Britain is also cautiously considering providing arms. A European Union arms embargo on Syria is still in place, but its expiration in May paves the way for a debate on so-called "lethal aid."

"It's a rapidly changing situation," Mr. Hammond said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We've kept all our options open. We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it's something we will not do."

Hammond said that the US and Britain "have a great deal of knowledge about the location of chemical weapons" in Syria, but that they have not been able to track all of them, likely because President Bashar al-Assad has ordered them moved around the country.

Although the US has found evidence that the nerve agent sarin gas was used, it has been unable to prove that it was used by regime forces. Some military officials worry that extremist rebel groups may have used the gas to catalyze stronger international support for the opposition, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

The extreme caution with which the US and Britain are approaching the issue is likely a reflection of concern about repeating the mistakes in Iraq, in which the US invaded based on intelligence later proven false.

"There is a strong sense in UK public opinion that we went to war in Iraq on the back of evidence that proved not to be correct," Mr. Hammond said. "In British political space, it is called the dodgy dossier."

... "We have to be absolutely sure we are on firm ground and we're not looking at another dodgy dossier," he said.

However, CNN reports that the level of confidence the Obama administration and Britain want before they commits military aid may be too high a bar, noting that the United Nations' efforts to launch an independent investigation have so far been blocked. 

Yesterday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also cited the bad intelligence on Iraq and said that the UN should focus on forcing Assad to allow an investigation, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

“The blanket authorization to have unimpeded access to any site or any person in Syria resembles very much the Security Council resolutions in Iraq, and we all remember the end of that story,” Mr. Lavrov said at a press conference.

Even at their most cautious, world leaders seem to be somewhat out of sync with Arab publics on this issue. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that, according to a Pew Research Center poll, Arab citizens remain largely opposed to arming the rebels, either by the US and Europe or other Arab countries.

Eighty percent of Lebanese oppose Western arming of the rebels, and even among Sunnis, who are generally sympathetic to the predominantly Sunni opposition, a solid majority of 66 percent oppose the West sending military aid. Unsurprisingly, almost all (98 percent) of Lebanese Shiites oppose sending arms; the regime's base is predominantly Alawite, a Shiite sect. 

The picture changes slightly when such aid is coming from other Arab countries, but only Lebanese Sunnis join Jordan in supporting the idea – 65 percent of Jordanians favor sending arms and other military supplies, while 63 percent of Lebanese Sunnis do (to show how starkly divided Lebanon is over the Syrian war, hold that up against the 97 percent of Lebanese Shiites who oppose Arab countries sending military aid). 

The results should be examined with the caveat that the poll was conducted in March, before evidence surfaced that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

The New York Times reports that the US shift is not only attributable to a growing conviction that chemical weapons have been used. A senior official said that "growing confidence" in Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads the opposition's Supreme Military Council, is another factor. 

The defected Syrian Army soldier 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," according to The New York Times.

The possibly of the conflict becoming further militarized comes as Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, prepares to quit his post, further hampering diplomatic efforts that have barely gotten off the ground, The Daily Star reports. 

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council have urged Mr. Brahimi to stay, but according to one anonymous UN diplomat, he has already stepped down.

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