Not time to arm Syrians, Pentagon chief says (REUTERS) By Phil Stewart WASHINGTON 06/22/12 12:04am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the Obama
administration´s decision not to arm the Syrian opposition, saying
the country risked being pushed into an all-out civil war if efforts
to secure a smooth political transition fail.
"We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point. I
know others have made their own decisions," Panetta said in an
interview on Thursday.
"But I think it´s very important right now that everybody focus on a
smooth and responsible political transition," he said.
"If we don´t get this done in a responsible way, there´s a real
danger that the situation there could deteriorate into a terrible
The defense secretary also said the United States was concerned about
the possibility that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, known as
MANPADs, stolen from Libya last year during the fall of Muammar
Gaddafi, could make their way to Syria. He cautioned, however, that
he had seen no direct intelligence yet to confirm those fears.
Panetta also expressed confidence that Syria´s chemical weapons
stockpiles were not at risk.
"We´re confident that these sites are being secured. And we see no
evidence that any of them are in jeopardy of being violated," Panetta
The outside world is deeply divided in its response to an
increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria that threatens to become a
proxy war for regional powers. The United Nations estimates more than
10,000 people have been killed in 15 months of violence and unrest.
Western diplomats say that month-old estimate is obsolete and the
figure is likely much higher now.
Western nations and their Sunni Muslim allies in the Gulf and Turkey
seek the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad but are wary of
direct intervention, while Russia, China and Shi´ite Iran - Assad´s
strategic ally - have protected Assad from a tough international
Questions about weaponry being provided to Assad´s government came
into focus last week when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
accused Russia of providing attack helicopters to Assad. Russia
acknowledged on Thursday it was trying to send repaired combat
helicopters to Syria aboard a vessel that apparently turned back
after its insurance coverage was withdrawn.
Panetta said the U.S. hope was that "not only Russia, but other
countries, don´t provide the kind of weapons and arms that result in
killing more Syrians."
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said Panetta was referring
to the deaths of Syrian civilians by the Assad government and added
he was not criticizing those countries that chose to arm the Syrian
On other Middle East crises, Panetta in the interview:
* Said Egypt´s military leaders still appeared broadly committed to a
transition to civilian rule, but acknowledged his concern about new
limitations on presidential powers that opponents equate with a coup.
"At least from the conversations I´ve had with them, I´ve gotten the
impression that they want to continue to make this transition work,"
said Panetta, who spoke by phone last week with Field Marshal Hussein
Tantawi, head of Egypt´s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,
Panetta said he was more troubled by the SCAF´s restrictions on
presidential powers than by the decision of Egypt´s Supreme Court
last week to dissolve the newly elected parliament.
"You have to respect the ruling of the court. So I understand that,"
he said. "The bigger concern is the announcement with regards to
* Played down the failure to secure a breakthrough at talks on Iran´s
nuclear program this week, saying world leaders needed to keep the
pressure on Tehran.
"My view right now is we keep pressing, keep doing everything we can
to exhaust the diplomatic track, recognizing that the window is not
unlimited in terms of remaining open," Panetta said.
Israeli leaders have suggested that country might attack Iran´s
nuclear sites to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons power.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney) (© Thomson Reuters 2012.
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