Hagel: U.S. rethinking sending arms to Syrian rebels

As the U.S. examines evidence suggesting the Syria regime may have used chemical weapons on its people, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming Syrian rebels - though Hagel would not say whether or not he thinks that's a good idea.

"We are exploring all options" in the interest of stopping the violence in Syria and facilitating a Democratic transition, Hagel told reporters at a press briefing with British Defense Minister Philip Hammond. "These are not static situations 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."

Asked directly if the U.S. was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, Hagel said "yes."

But he wouldn't say if he or the administration had reached a conclusion on this matter, nor what his personal opinion is on the possibility of arming rebels. He also dismissed the notion that he is contradicting Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has expressed reservations about sending arms to the Syrian opposition.

"You look at and rethink all options. That doesn't mean you do or you will. These are options that must be considered with partners," Hagel said. "What is possibility, what can help accomplish these objectives, we have a responsibility and I think Gen. Dempsey would say the same thing - to continue to evaluate options. That doesn't mean that the president has decided on anything."

The Obama administration has faced repeated questions over its path forward on Syria in recent weeks, as evidence appears to have emerged suggesting chemical weapons were in fact used there in two separate attacks last month. But the White House insists it must have concrete evidence about the alleged weapon use and the chain of custody with which they were deployed.

A senior administration official told CBS News Wednesday that the Obama administration is not yet prepared to provide lethal weapons to the Syrian resistance. The official did say, however, that the conversation has shifted over the past several months and that weapons are under increased consideration.

Hammond, who echoed Hagel's perspective on the issue, said British citizens would not approve of any military action unless concrete evidence has shown its necessity.

"U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq which turned out not to be valid," he told reporters. "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 that U.K. evidence suggests that the Syrian regime is "largely in control" of its chemical weapons and that there is no reason to believe they've lost control of them, though that doesn't mean "we are able to account for every last unit of chemical stocks." Similarly, he said British intelligence has a "great deal of knowledge" about where those weapons are located.

The two defense leaders stressed that they are collaborating on the investigation and are in step with each other.

"Each country, certainly the United States, uses its own intelligence agencies and institutions and makes its own efforts, but we also collaborate, in this case with the U.K. and other allies to share intelligence," Hagel said.

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