WASHINGTON, March 7, 2012 — Iran will be the biggest loser when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime falls, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee today.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the committee on the situation in Syria this morning.
The Syrian people want what the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have a chance at freedom and a democratic future, the secretary said. Assad and his people are indiscriminately killing those pushing for peaceful change in the nation. The fighting in the country is causing a humanitarian crisis of the first order, and thousands of Syrians are fleeing from the country to Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
A stable Syria is vital to the Middle East and the world, Panetta said. “But perhaps most notably, Syria is a pivotal country for Iran,” the secretary said. “Syria is Iran’s only state ally in the region and is crucial to Iran’s efforts to support those militants throughout the region who threaten Israel and threaten regional stability.”
The unrest in Syria already has weakened Iran’s position in the Middle East, and it will be further weakened if the regime falls, the secretary said. “As groups such as Hamas distance themselves from the Assad regime, Iran is quickly becoming the Assad regime’s lone backer,” he added. “This shows the world the hypocrisy of Tehran.”
Panetta told the senators that the United States is on the side of the Syrian people. “They must know that the international community has not underestimated either their suffering or their impatience,” he said. “We all wish there was a clear and unambiguous way forward to directly influence the events in Syria. That, unfortunately, is not the case.”
The only clear path is for the international community to act as one against the regime, the secretary said.
Dempsey told the panel that Syria’s internal convulsions are having consequences. In addition to the refugee problem, the general said, “we also need to be alert to the movement of extremists and other hostile actors seeking to exploit the situation.”
“And we need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons,” the chairman added. “They must stay exactly where they are.”
The U.S. military role to date has been limited to sharing information with regional partners, Dempsey said. “But, should we be called on to help secure U.S. interests in other ways, we will be ready,” he told the senators. “We maintain an agile regional and global posture. We have solid military relationships with every country on Syria’s borders.”
And the military is prepared to provide U.S. government leaders with options, Dempsey said. “All options will be judged in terms of their suitability, their feasibility and their acceptability,” he added. “We have a further responsibility to articulate risk and the potential implications for our other global commitments.”
Panetta told the senators that unilateral U.S. action in Syria does not make sense.
“As secretary of defense, before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way, I’ve got to make very sure that we know what the mission is,” he said. “I’ve got to make very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission, at what price, and whether or not it’ll make matters better or worse. Those are the considerations that I have to engage in.”
The United States needs to build the same type of coalition that worked in Libya, Dempsey said.
The senators asked Dempsey specifically about an air campaign over Syria. “We’ve demonstrated the capability to penetrate air defense systems for a discrete purpose and a very limited amount of time,” he said. “We still have that capability.” To conduct a sustained campaign, the U.S. military would have to suppress Syria’s air defense.
“In closed session, we do have an estimate based on gaming and modeling of how long it would take to do that, given the density and the sophistication of their air defense system,” Dempsey said. “But it would be an extended period of time, and a great number of aircraft.”
Such an air campaign would be led by the United States, at least initially, Dempsey said, noting that only U.S. forces have the electronic warfare capabilities to take down those defenses.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)