By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – The Defense Department’s senior civilian and military officer offered their perspectives today on the ongoing unrest in Syria and the threat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula poses in Yemen.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a press conference that internal strife in Syria remains an issue of great concern.
The Syrian people’s revolt against ruler President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in early 2011. Since then, Assad’s military has battled rebel forces in several cities. Estimates of those killed, both combatants and civilians, reach as high as 17,000-plus.
The secretary acknowledged the cease-fire nominally in place in Syria as part of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s peace plan “does not appear to be working.”
“We continue to urge Assad to step down, that there must be a change there,” Panetta said. “They've lost their legitimacy by the huge number of deaths that are taking place in Syria.”
He emphasized the United States continues to work with other nations to bring diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad. The goal, Panetta said, is to implement political reforms, “have Assad step down and to try to return Syria to the Syrian people.”
Dempsey added he has consulted on the issue with his counterparts in Syria’s neighbor nations.
“Two weeks ago, I was in Jordan,” the chairman said. “Today my Turkish counterpart is in the building, and we're trying to gain a common understanding of where we think we are and where we think we might want to go.”
Jordan is very concerned about the potential for increased refugees from the conflict, Dempsey said.
“That's a concern that an individual country might have that wouldn't necessarily be ours, but it's important to understand the complexity of the situation,” he added.
Panetta said he has seen intelligence reports indicating an al-Qaida presence in Syria.
“Frankly, we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” he said.
The group’s presence anywhere is a concern, he said, adding, “We need to continue to do everything we can to determine what kind of influence they are trying to exert there.”
Turning to Yemen, the secretary said DOD’s announcement earlier this week that U.S. military personnel are again training Yemeni forces does not mean U.S. ground forces are engaged there.
Panetta noted the disclosure this week of a failed al-Qaida plot to attack a U.S. airliner. The attack was planned to happen in Yemen, which demonstrated that the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains a threat, he added.
“We will go after al-Qaida wherever they are and wherever they try to hide. And one of the places that they clearly are located is Yemen,” he said.
The United States does have operations there, and Yemeni officials have been “very cooperative” in those activities, the secretary said.
“Our operations now are directed with the Yemenis going after al-Qaida,” he said, adding there is “no consideration” of U.S. military ground operations in Yemen.
U.S. efforts to target al-Qaida leaders -- such as the Sept. 30 U.S. airstrike in Yemen that killed terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki -- have been very successful, he noted.
“I think the fact that … we continue to be successful with regards to these kinds of threats is an indication of the effectiveness of the operations that we have there,” Panetta said.
He added, “I do believe that we are making effective progress at going after those specific targets that represent real threats to the United States.”