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Panetta says US ready on Syria if required

The Secretary of Defense insisted, however, that diplomacy was the best option.

By Donna CassataThe Associated Press / April 19, 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testifies before Congress on Syria, Thursday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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U.S. military leaders clearly expressed reluctance about using American might to stop the unending violence in Syria, insisting that diplomacy remains the best option to force President Bashar Assad to end the brutal crackdown on his own people.

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Testifying before Congress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the steps the United States and other countries are taking to pressure the Assad regime after 13 months of bloodshed that has left more than 9,000 dead, according to the United Nations, and displaced tens of thousands. The steps range from tough sanctions to shared intelligence to $25 million in emergency humanitarian assistance.

Dempsey said if called upon, the military would be ready to act and the services are working on ways to try to halt the violence. But both he and Panetta set a high threshold for U.S. military involvement in a war in the Middle East after lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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"I think it's clear that the only way that the United States would get involved militarily is if there's a consensus in the international community to try to do something along those lines," Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee. "And then obviously ensure that the international community is able to get authorities required in order to make that happen."

Pressed later on the issue, Panetta said, "At this point in time ...a decision is that we will not have any boots on the ground and that we will not act unilaterally in that part of the world."

The Pentagon leaders' testimony came as representatives from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, U.N. Security Council member Morocco and Qatar, plus Western powers such as the U.S., Britain and Germany, gathered in Paris to discuss ways of helping special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan to end the violence in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was participating in the session.

Panetta said there were no easy solutions. "There is no silver bullet. I wish there was, but there isn't," he said.

At the same time, the Pentagon chief insisted that Assad's days are numbered despite his formidable hold on power. The former CIA director said U.S. intelligence has concluded that the regime faces a broad-based insurgency that is striking back.

Assad "will be taken down," Panetta said.

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