Iran Will Be Biggest Loser When Assad Falls, Panetta Says

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)