Panetta Says No New Steps by Syria on Chemical Armsإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
Syria has not taken any new steps in recent days that signal a readiness to use its chemical weapons arsenal, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday, citing intelligence reports.
"At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off. We haven't seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way," Panetta told reporters aboard his plane before landing in Kuwait to discuss bolstering security ties amid tumult in the region and tensions with Iran.
"But we continue to monitor it very closely and we continue to make clear to them that they should not under any means make use of these chemical weapons against their own population.
"That would produce serious consequences."
The Pentagon chief said last week that the United States had intelligence that showed Syria was considering employing its chemical weapons.
Some U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the regime had mixed precursor chemicals to create a lethal nerve agent and had loaded it into aerial bombs.
After a series of stern warnings from Washington and other Western capitals, Panetta said he hoped Syrian President Bashar Assad had gotten "the message".
"I'd like to believe he's got the message. We've made it pretty clear and others have as well."
But he said the U.S. government remained concerned that as opposition forces make gains, the Assad regime could resort to its chemical stockpiles as a last-ditch move to hold on to power.
Panetta also said the U.S. military will retain a "strong presence" in the Middle East despite a strategic shift to Asia.
The United States plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific along with other advanced weaponry but Panetta insisted that a robust American force would remain in place in the Middle East.
"Let me assure you that the United States is strong enough that we can maintain a strong presence in the Middle east as well as in the Pacific," he said.
He acknowledged that the United States had to be "flexible" in managing its forces in a more austere era and that it would have only one aircraft carrier in the Middle East for about two months to allow for maintenance work on another carrier, the USS Nimitz.
The American military still had nearly 50,000 troops and warships positioned across the region, he said.
"But in the end, I am very confident that we're going to be able to maintain the ships and forces we need in order to respond to any contingency."
The United States has deployed more ships and aircraft in the strategic Gulf over the past year after Iran threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz if Western countries boycotted Iranian oil exports.
During his visit to Kuwait on Tuesday and Wednesday, Panetta plans to meet Kuwaiti leaders as well as some of the 13,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country to thank them for their service ahead of the Christmas holidays.
His visit is the first to the emirate by a Pentagon chief in five years.
"We share a history of cooperation that goes back to the first Gulf War," in 1991 that ousted Iraqi occupation forces, Panetta said of Kuwait, calling the country an "important partner".
"I look forward to discussing with the government of Kuwait how can we enhance that cooperation in the face of regional security challenges in the area," he said.
"Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf helps enhance the capabilities of partner nations, deters aggression and helps ensure that we're better able to respond to crises in the region."
Panetta's visit coincides with a wave of protests in the oil-rich Gulf state, with thousands of opposition demonstrators demanding fresh elections due to a bitter dispute over amendments to the country's electoral law.
Kuwaiti activists have called for protesters to camp outside parliament next Saturday on the eve of its opening session.