The Pentagon’s top officials on Tuesday expressed concern about “a growing presence by Iran” in Syria’s 17-month-long conflict, saying that Iranian forces are training a pro-regime Syrian militia to wage war on protesters and rebels.
In addition, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that al Qaeda fighters are battling Syrian security forces with the rebels but haven’t aligned themselves with the opposition in the same way that Iran has aligned itself with President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“Al Qaeda’s opportunistic, and I think it’s on that basis that they’re trying to find inroads into Syria, not aligned with the opposition,” Gen. Dempsey said during a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.
Mr. Panetta said that Iranian forces are “trying to train a militia within Syria to fight on behalf of the regime.”
“So we are seeing a growing presence by Iran, and that is of deep concern that that’s taking place,” he said, “and we do not think that Iran ought to be playing that role at this moment in time.
“All it’s going to wind up doing, frankly, is prolong the misery of the Syrian people. So I guess our hope is that Iran thinks better about how much they do want to get involved,” the defense secretary said. “But in any event, we’ve got to make sure that Iran does not exercise that kind of influence in Syria and try to determine the future of the Syrian people.
“The Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran,” Mr. Panetta said.
Gen. Dempsey said he believes the Iranian-trained militia is being assembled to relieve and improve the morale of Syrian troops, who have endured thousands of defections and months of warfare against their own people.
During their wide-ranging briefing, the defense officials also said that they had spoken by phone Tuesday with their new counterparts in Egypt, where President Mohamed Morsi ordered the retirement of several top military figures over the weekend.
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey noted that Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the new defense minister, and Lt. Gen. Sidki Sayed Ahmed, the new chief of staff, have good ties with the Pentagon. Mr. Dempsey also noted that Gen. el-Sissi promised to observe the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
In a separate briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was not involved in the Egyptian military appointments.
“It’s not our job to pick the leaders of a foreign government,” Mrs. Nuland said, acknowledging that Gen. el-Sissi is someone “we do know well, who we’ve worked with in the past and who has had training in the United States.”
Gen. el-Sissi previously has met with top Obama administration officials and participated in a basic training course at Fort Benning, Ga., during the 1980s.
In a related matter, Gen. Dempsey plans to travel to Iraq at the end the month to check on progress in a Middle East country that has been beset by sectarian violence and political turmoil since the U.S. withdrew most of its troops in December.
The general will make a one-day stop in Baghdad, where he is expected to meet with U.S. Embassy officials and Iraqi leaders, and check the status of U.S. efforts to supporting Iraq’s fledgling democratic government. His will be the highest level visit to Iraq by an American official since the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.