No U.S. ground troops will be sent to Syria to secure chemical weapons if the Syrian regime falls, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday in the Defense Department’s most detailed public comments to date on planning for Syria.
“We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground,” Mr. Panetta said at a Pentagon briefing. “I think you always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation. But in a hostile situation, we’re not planning for that.”
He said the greater challenge is deciding what steps the international community can take to ensure those weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.
“That is a discussion that we are having, not only with the Israelis but with other countries in the region, to try to look at, you know, what steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured and that they don’t wind up in the wrong hands,” Mr. Panetta said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there is nothing the U.S. could do to prevent Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime from using chemical weapons on rebels.
“The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable … because you would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance. You’d have to actually see it before it happened. And that’s unlikely, to be sure,” Gen. Dempsey said.
He added that the U.S. is doing what it can to send the message that the use of chemical weapons would be unacceptable. Defense officials have called such use a “red line.”
“I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it — if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Syrian rebels lately have been making gains against the regime’s forces in the country’s 21-month-long civil war, but neither side has scored decisive victories.
The Assad regime has said it would not use chemical weapons against civilians but fears such weapons could end up in the hands of “terrorists,” as it refers to the rebels.