By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 18, 2012 – As Syrian violence escalates and concerns grow about that nation’s chemical weapon stores, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today the international community must place maximum pressure on President Bashar Assad to accept a peaceful transition from power.
“What is happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting, and … by ignoring appeals by the international community [for Assad to step down], the violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased,” Panetta said, “which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.”
Panetta and British Secretary of State for Defense Philip Hammond briefed the press this morning after a bilateral breakfast meeting.
Both responded to questions about the reported assassinations in Damascus today of Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and deputy defense minister Gen. Assef Shawkat, who was married to one of Assad’s sisters. Both were said to have been killed in a suicide bombing.
Syria’s state-run television said Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar was wounded in the blast, which reports said targeted a high-level security meeting.
“We're all horrified by the level of loss of life, the atrocities against civilian populations being carried out in Syria,” Hammond said, adding, “ … There is a sense that the situation is deteriorating and is becoming more and more unpredictable.”
Panetta and Hammond also addressed concerns about Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and the regime’s potential use of the munitions against its own citizens. The possibility has been raised by Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, who defected from the Assad regime July 11.
The secretary said the United States has made very clear to Assad and his regime “that they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regards to those sites.”
Panetta added, “This is something that we and our allies are working very closely together [on] to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibility to effectively secure these chemical sites.”
Hammond said the international community is “watching very carefully how the Syrians discharge their obligations with regard to these chemical weapon sites that they're sitting on.”
It is in everyone’s interest, he said, “that despite the chaos in the country, these sites remain under tight control and that there is no proliferation of materials out of those sites, and certainly no use of them against the civilian population.”
Hammond added, “We have differences with other international players on some issues but I think this is an area where all the major international players share a desire, a necessity to see these weapons kept under tight control and not used in any way, shape or form.”
Panetta said it’s more essential than ever that the United States and the international community “continue to work together through the United Nations, through whatever possible vehicles we have, to bring additional pressure on Assad to step down and to allow for a peaceful transition of government there in Syria.”