The United States has accused Iran of building and training a Syrian militia group as part of its efforts to bolster the tottering regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the strife-torn Middle East nation, and expressed concerns at the growing Iranian involvement in Syria.
"There's now indications that they're trying to develop or trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime. So we are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a Pentagon news briefing on Tuesday.
Urging Iran to rethink about the extent of its involvement in that Arab country, Panetta stressed that the "Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran." He noted that Iran's interference was adding to the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, and accused Tehran of persisting with its efforts "to bolster a regime that we think, ultimately, is going to come down."
Speaking at the same news briefing, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey noted that the 18-month uprising was taking an obvious toll on the Syrian Army. He said the Syrian Army was currently facing the "kind of wear-and-tear that would come of being in a fight for as long as they have.
"I actually think that's why Iran is stepping in to form this militia, to take some of the pressure off the Syrian military," Gen. Dempsey added.
Panetta said U.S. efforts to put an end to Assad's rule in Syria were progressing primarily through diplomatic channels, focusing on ensuring the security of Syria's chemical and biological weapons as well as providing humanitarian aid to refugees and non-lethal aid to the Opposition.
He said the Defense Department had plans in place for "a number of contingencies," but stressed that the rebels' demand for enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria was "not a front-burner issue for us." He, however, added: "We are prepared to be able to respond to whatever the President of the United States asks us to do."
The Pentagon chief noted that the increasing number of defections and problems within the Syrian military were further signs of the regime's imminent collapse. He was apparently referring to the recent defections by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab as well as a number of key Generals.
Hijab, who fled the country last week, told a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday that Assad's regime was collapsing "morally and financially, as it escalates militarily." Noting that the government had already lost control of about two-thirds of the country, he called on Syrian Opposition groups to unite and urged forces loyal to the regime to defect "for the good of the people."
Hijab, who was named Premier on June 23, had announced his defection to the Opposition on August 6 after fleeing with his family to neighboring Jordan. He was the highest-ranking official to desert the Assad regime. He is a Sunni Muslim from the Deir al-Zour area of eastern Syria, which has been a major center of the anti-Assad uprising.
Currently, heavy fighting is progressing between government forces and armed rebels opposed to Assad's rule. Although Syrian security forces managed to retain their control over capital Damascus despite repeated attempts by rebel fighters to capture the city, Syria's largest city of Aleppo has been the center of intense fighting over the past four weeks.
More than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since anti- Assad protests broke out in March 2011. The Opposition, however, claims the actual death toll to be closer to 20,000. The conflict is now viewed as a civil war by most of the international community.
by RTT Staff Writer
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