Panetta Discusses Syria, Libya, Asia-Pacific Issues
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 27, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters today that unilateral U.S. military intervention in Syria would be “a serious mistake.”
The secretary and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, focused on Afghanistan but touched on other areas as they briefed Pentagon reporters here today.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have battled rebel fighters for a year and a half, with the death toll rising sharply since early spring and violence increasingly focused on the capital of Damascus.
Panetta said reports that the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, advocated Arab intervention in Syria don’t change his belief that the best approach remains international “diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad to step down.”
However, he added, if the international community decides military action is required, “then, obviously, we would be part of that.”
Panetta noted the United States is working with other nations to help opposition forces and provide humanitarian aid to those affected by Syria’s violence. U.S. officials also are closely monitoring chemical and biological weapons sites, he added.
Dempsey, who met earlier today with Saudi Arabia’s chief of the general staff, Lt. Gen. Huseen ibn Abdullah al-Gubayel, said his counterpart had expressed concern about Syria “based on what they assess as Iranian influence, which they also assess to be a factor to their south, in Yemen.”
Most of the meeting concerned the U.S.-Saudi partnership and “how we can continue to partner with them to build their capability – in particular, in air defense and the maritime domain,” Dempsey added.
Reporters also questioned recent reports that characterize the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a terrorist attack. Panetta said he is convinced by what he has learned since the attack that it was carried out by terrorists, but whether al Qaida or an affiliate was involved remains under investigation.
Noting that several terrorist groups operate in the region, Panetta emphasized, “We are not going to let people who deliberately attack and kill our people get away with it.”
Dempsey noted a “thread of intelligence” before the attack had warned of terrorist groups in the region “seeking to coalesce,” but it didn’t include specific threats.
The secretary turned to the Asia-Pacific region in response to a question on China’s view of U.S. arms sales to India. The military’s strategic rebalance to the Pacific is aimed at maintaining regional stability, he said.
While his talks with Chinese leaders during his visit to Beijing last week didn’t directly address U.S. assistance or arms sales to India, the secretary said, the two sides agreed a strong bilateral relationship between the United States and China is a key to Asia-Pacific prosperity and security.
The United States and China share regional concerns ranging from nuclear proliferation to humanitarian assistance and maritime rights, Panetta said. “It’s important for us to work to develop the capabilities of countries in that region, so that they can help secure themselves,” he said.