Iran is working to establish in Syria a militia that is loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday, warning that Tehran’s growing presence could only aggravate the situation on the ground.
There is now evidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are “trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime,” Panetta said.
“So we are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us. We do not think that Iran ought to play that role at this moment in time, that’s dangerous… it’s adding to the killing that’s going on in Syria.”
Panetta also called on Tehran to stay out of the conflict, saying: “Our hope is that Iran thinks better about how much they do want to get involved.”
“The Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran,” he added, before he
played down options for a no-fly zone over Syria.
“With regards to the no-fly zone, that is not a front-burner issue for us,” Panetta said.
Panetta said his focus was on ensuring that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons sites were secure and working with allies to help foster as smooth a transition as possible should Assad fall – something U.S. officials describe as an inevitability.
The imposition of no-fly zones by foreign powers was crucial in helping Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year, but it required NATO attacks to destroy Libyan air defenses.
In March testimony to Congress, Panetta warned of potential “severe collateral damage” in establishing a no-fly zone for Syria as the country’s air defense systems, which are far more sophisticated than Libya’s, were located in populated areas.
At the same March hearing, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that Syria had five times more air defense capabilities than had existed in Libya.
Dempsey, speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, said Jordan and Turkey had both examined the possibility of a safe haven with which “would probably come some form of no-fly zone.”
“But we’re not planning anything unilaterally, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said, just before Panetta said a no-fly zone wasn’t a front-burner issue.
Splits among big powers and regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia have stymied diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed.
Panetta said he and Dempsey shared concerns about Iran’s deepening involvement.
“It is obvious to both General Dempsey and I that Iran is playing a larger role in Syria in many ways, not only in terms of the IRGC, but in terms of assistance, training,” Panetta said, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“There’s now an indication that they’re … trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime.”
Iran has steadfastly supported Assad in his 17-month effort to crush the rebellion in his country and on Tuesday urged Muslim states to show greater unity ahead of a summit of Muslim leaders this week expected to focus on Syria.