Panetta suggests Washington fully backs Israeli strike on Syria

Outgoing defense secretary says US intent on preventing transfer of sophisticated weapons to terrorists, warns of Iran’s export of manpads

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attends a ceremony in Lima, Peru, last October (photo credit: AP/Martin Mejia/File)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attends a ceremony in Lima, Peru, last October (photo credit: AP/Martin Mejia/File)

In two interviews on Friday, outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the US fears instability in Syria could enable Hezbollah to obtain sophisticated weapons from Damascus, and warned of Iran’s attempts to destabilize the Middle East.

He referred to the reported Israeli strike on Syria earlier this week week — in which multiple targets, including an arms convoy believed to be heading to Lebanon, were allegedly hit by Israeli jets — and suggested that Washington “fully backed the move,” AFP reported.

“The chaos in Syria has obviously created an environment where the possibility of these weapons, you know, going across the border and falling into the hands of Hezbollah has become a greater concern,” Panetta said.

“Without discussing the communications that we have on a regular basis with Israel or the specifics of that operation, because that’s something they know more about,” the defense secretary added, confirming that it was in fact Israel that conducted the strike, “we have expressed the concern that we have to do everything we can to make sure that sophisticated weapons like SA-17 missiles or, for that matter chemical biological weapons, do not fall into the hands of terrorists,” he said.

TIME magazine reported Friday that the US was prepared to carry out raids of its own in the Aleppo area if it feared rebels might otherwise gain control of weapons of mass destruction in that area of Syria.

On Wednesday, US officials told The New York Times that Israel had notified the United States about an airstrike it carried out overnight Tuesday near the Lebanese-Syrian border. The officials said that they believed the target of the strike was a convoy carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry intended to reach Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

An unnamed Western official told the Wall Street Journal that the convoy was carrying sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons, which could constitute a strategic game-changer were Hezbollah to possess them.

A former Syrian general said Friday that the facility reportedly struck by Israel produced non-conventional weapons, in addition to conventional arms. Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillu was previously in charge of the country’s chemical weapons training program.

Israel has yet to confirm or even officially comment on Tuesday’s alleged air raid.

During an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Panetta called Iran’s export of manpads — anti-aircraft missiles that can be carried by one person and that pose significant risks to airlines and military planes — an escalation.

“There is no question when you start passing manpads around, that becomes a threat, not just to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft,” Panetta said. “That is an escalation.”

Recent US intelligence has pointed to the Islamic Regime’s efforts to smuggle the manpads, such as a January 23-shipment of such weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, that was intercepted by Yemen with US assistance.

“It’s one of the first times we have seen it,” Panetta told the newspaper.

The Pentagon chief said the US is stepping up its efforts to curb the threat emanating from Iran. He cited a planned February 7 multi-national exercise in the United Arab Emirates that would improve the ability of the Gulf states to halt Iranian arms transfers in the region.

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