WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he believed U.S. policy of giving only “non-lethal support” to Syria’s opposition was the correct one.
Hagel’s comments, at his first news briefing since taking over the Pentagon on Wednesday, came a day after the United States said it would for the first time give non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and more than double its aid to Syria’s civilian opposition.
The moves disappointed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who are clamoring for Western weapons, something U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to provide.
Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, disclosed earlier this month that he joined the heads of the State Department and CIA last year in recommending arming the rebels.
Still, Panetta told Congress on February 7 he ultimately supported Obama’s decision to restrict aid to Syria.
“It’s clear what ... the administration’s policy is on Syria: non-lethal assistance,” Hagel told reporters.
“I think the policy that the United States has is the correct policy.”
More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.
The United States has so far given $385 million in humanitarian aid, but Obama has been wary of sending weapons, arguing it would be difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.
Republican Senator John McCain, one of the leading advocates for greater U.S. involvement in Syria, said the conflict was increasingly destabilizing neighboring countries.
“To say that we’re really going to change the equation with non-lethal aid is not going to do it. And I think we have written a shameful chapter in American history,” McCain told CBS News earlier on Wednesday.
The U.S. offer this week of medical aid and food rations fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad’s mostly Russian-supplied forces.
It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armored personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.
Editing by Peter Cooney