US backtracks on Syria intervention call
Published Friday, June 1, 2012
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that any military action in Syria would need backing from the United Nations, backtracking from an earlier statement by Washington's UN envoy that the superpower could pursue options outside the world body.
Asked if he could foresee a scenario in which the United States would back military intervention even without UN authorization, Panetta said: "No, I cannot envision that."
Panetta said his duty as Pentagon chief was "to make sure that when we deploy our men and women in uniform and put them at risk, that we not only know what the mission is but we have the kind of support that we need in order to accomplish that mission."
But he said the situation in Syria was "intolerable," and that the United States was not ruling out any course of action.
"It's always important for the United States of America to protect every possible option for taking action in the future," Panetta told reporters aboard his plane bound for Singapore.
Panetta's comments came a day after the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, warned of possible US military intervention if Russia refuses to drop its opposition to tough sanctions against Damascus.
"I think we may be beginning to see the wheels coming off of this bus," Rice said.
Rice spoke of three possible scenarios: Syria could implement a UN-brokered peace deal, the Security Council could ratchet up the pressure on Damascus or, failing that, outside powers could be forced to launch a military action.
But Rice appeared to back away from that stance on Thursday and did not repeat her statement.
After Panetta's briefing with reporters, his press secretary, George Little, said comments by the Pentagon chief and the UN ambassador were not "mutually exclusive."
"He said very clearly that we're preserving all of our options. He's not taking any option off the table or suggesting that's administration policy," Little said.
Panetta opposes unilateral military action and wants to see more diplomatic and economic pressure against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, Little said.
"That doesn't mean the secretary's comments are at odds with what she said," the spokesman said.
US slams Russia, Iran
The United States on Thursday lashed out at Moscow for arming the Syrian government while accusing Iran of "malignant behavior" in Syria, as it stepped up diplomatic pressure on Assad.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Denmark, said that Russia's policy of resisting UN Security Council action against Damascus was only increasing the chance of civil war erupting.
The Russians "are telling me they don't want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going (to) help to contribute to a civil war," Clinton said.
At the United Nations, US Ambassador Susan Rice described Russian arms shipments to Syria as "reprehensible" while accusing Damascus of a "blatant lie" by denying involvement in a massacre in which 108 people were killed.
Rice's condemnation came after reports last week that a Russian ship carrying weapons had arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Rice said: "With respect to the reported docking of a ship carrying Russian arms, this is obviously of the utmost concern given that the Syrian government continues to use deadly force against civilians."
Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin has rejected criticism of the arms sales insisting they are legal and have no influence on the Syria conflict.
Russia has in turn accused the US of undermining peace efforts by backing Syrian rebels, with Washington's Gulf Arab allies allegedly supplying arms to insurgents.
Iran also received a rebuke from Washington. In sharp comments toward Tehran, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Iran was exploiting the violence in Syria to entrench its regional sway.
"That fact further highlights Iran's continued effort to expand its nefarious influence in the region, and underscores Iran's fear of a Syria without the Assad regime," he told reporters at the White House.
European and US security officials say Iran has offered Assad extensive support, including weapons and ammunition, to shore up a vital ally.
Putin heads to Europe
Tough talks are expected on Syria during Russian President Vladimir Putin's tour of Europe, set to take him to Berlin and Paris.
Germany urged Russia on Friday to drop its support for Assad ahead of the talks, adding that the West was not seeking to undermine Russian strategic interests in the Middle East.
"In our view Russia should recognize that we are not working against Russian strategic interests when we want to stop the violence in Syria," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Die Welt ahead of Putin's arrival.
Western powers have upped their diplomatic pressure on Russia following the Houla massacre last week which left 108 civilians dead.
"Russia and its stance towards the Assad regime plays a key role in the Syrian crisis," Westerwelle added.
But the German FM added to the caution of pursuing military action, reiterating Germany's support for a political solution.
"We must not give the impression in this difficult situation that military intervention is the road to a quick fix," Westerwelle said.
"The political and diplomatic paths are extremely difficult but we must pursue them."
Putin, who was sworn in for a third term as president last month, holds talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday before heading to Paris where he will meet French President Francois Hollande.
(Al-Akhbar, Reuters, AFP)