By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – Steady progress is being made in dealing with challenges in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters in a briefing here today.
Topics included the situation between U.S. ally Turkey and the internally embattled Syria, a rescheduled U.S.-Israeli military exercise, an upcoming DOD visit to Iraq, and continuing discussions with military leaders in Pakistan.
“We continue to be concerned about developments in Syria,” Panetta said, referring to ongoing violence between the brutal authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad and determined opposition groups, and the movement of Turkish military assets to the Syrian border after the June 22 shootdown by Syrian forces of a Turkish Phantom F-4 fighter and its two-member aircrew.
The secretary said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is engaged in discussions with U.S. allies in the region, including Turkey.
“Turkey is one of our allies in that region,” Panetta said. “We continue to be in close discussions with them with regard to how we best approach the situation in Syria.”
Dempsey said he had a recent conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel, adding, “He's taking a very measured approach to the incident. … He and I are staying in contact.”
Also in the region, the chairman said the United States and Israel have rescheduled a joint military exercise called Austere Challenge.
Dempsey said a final decision on the exercise date will be determined during a current visit to Israel by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James N. Miller.
In Iraq, where the level of violence increased this month, Panetta said discussions continue with the Iraqis on the threat from al-Qaida terrorists.
“We've seen increased violence [and] … we share the concern of the Iraqis with regard to that increased violence,” the secretary said, adding, “We're going to continue to work with them to … improve their ability to be able to deal with those kinds of threats.”
Before leaving Iraq, he added, U.S. forces worked in great cooperation on this problem.
“We've continued to work with their security forces but we think it's really important now that we try to bring that cooperation even closer together to make sure that these kinds of threats are dealt with directly,” Panetta said.
Dempsey said Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, had high-level consultative talks with the Iraqis earlier this year and Panetta hosted a May 23 meeting at the Pentagon with Iraqi Acting Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaymi.
“What we're doing is charting a way ahead, actually, on the potential for exercises, the things we talked about at the closing ceremony” in December 2011, the chairman said, adding that he plans a visit to Iraq later this year.
Discussions also continue between American and Pakistani officials over the reopening of Pakistan supply routes -- called ground lines of communication, or GLOCs -- into Afghanistan, and the breakup of Pakistan safe havens for militant groups like the Haqqani network, Panetta said.
“We continue to have a line of communication with the Pakistanis to try to see if we can take steps to reopen the GLOCs,” Panetta said, adding, “The good news is that there continue to be those discussions.”
Tough issues still need to be settled, the secretary said.
“I think the important thing right now is that both sides, in good faith, keep working to see if we can resolve this,” he said.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, met recently with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the secretary said.
“I think [Allen] made clear that both the United States and Pakistan have to work together to deal with the threat from the Haqqanis,” Panetta said, adding that Kayani seemed receptive to U.S. concerns.
“After all,” the secretary said, “they, too, have been victims of terrorism. They lost 17 Pakistanis on a patrol to the [Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan] … so we have a common enemy. It would make sense if we could work together to confront that common enemy.”