US not arming Syrian rebels: Panetta

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz talks to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (L) during a condolence call at the Royal Court in Jeddah, 20 June 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Saudi Press Agency - Handout)

Published Friday, June 22, 2012

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the Obama administration's decision not to arm Syrian rebels, 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, referring to Gulf Arab states that have decided to arm the rebels.

"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 civil war."

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's comments come after a New York Times report said the CIA was overseeing arms supplies to Syrian rebels, purchased by Gulf Arab states and Turkey, to ensure they do not fall into the hands of al-Qaeda.

The public US denial of providing lethal assistance to Syrian rebels also comes amid a row with Russia over arms sales to Syria.

Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admonished Moscow for its arms contracts with Syria, while Russia accused the US of supplying arms to Syrian rebels.

Russia on Thursday said it was only sending repaired helicopters to Syria, which it had supplied in a previous deal years ago. The US alleges Moscow is sending new attack helicopters.

Panetta also expressed confidence that Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles were not at risk, which Israel says is among the largest in the world.

"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 said.

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 nations and their regional allies in the Gulf, Turkey, and Israel seek the overthrow of President Bashar Assad, but are wary of direct intervention, while Russia, China, and Iran have shielded Assad from a tough international response.

Panetta said the US hope was that "not only Russia, but other countries, don't provide the kind of weapons and arms that result in killing more Syrians."

Clarifying Panetta's comments, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said the defense secretary was not criticizing those countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that have chosen to arm the Syrian opposition.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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