By Larry Shaughnessy
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday accused Iran of training pro-Assad militias in Syria in an increased effort to to prop up the embattled Syrian president.
"There's now an indication that they're trying to develop - or trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime," Panetta said during a news briefing at the Pentagon. "We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us that that's taking place."
U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who briefed the media with Panetta, said this Iranian-trained militia appears to be made up of local civilians, "generally Shia, some Alawite."
But while Iran helps the Bashar al-Assad regime, the United States and others continue to assist the opposition.
The United States is providing non-lethal aid such as communications equipment while other countries are "providing more aggressive assistance to the opposition," said Panetta.
Panetta said instituting a no-fly zone is "not a front burner issue for us," but Dempsey said the United States is talking with others about the option.
"We have been in discussion with Jordanians and and the Turks. They're both interested mostly in the effects that could spill from Syria into their countries. Both have examined the possibility of a safe haven. And with a safe haven would probably come some form of no-fly zone. But we're not planning anything unilaterally," Dempsey said.
As it has from the start of the unrest in Syria, the Pentagon is keeping a close eye on the regime's large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons (CBW).
"We continue to monitor those sites, working with Turkey, working with Jordan. We've been in discussions with Israel, as well, to determine what steps need to be taken to ensure that those sites are secure and maintained so that those weapons don't fall into the wrong hands," Panetta said. "We're continuing to develop plans with the adjoining countries to ensure that they will always be secure."
Even as the fighting rages on, the Pentagon is already talking about what the country may look like if al-Assad is overthrown.
Panetta said the United States does not want a repeat of what happened when the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed and a U.S. diplomat dissolved the Iraqi military.
Panetta said he believes the Syrian military will be needed.
"How do we develop a process to ensure that the different segments of the opposition can come together and be able to organize in some kind of transitional government?" Panetta asked. "How do we deal with some of the other groups like Al Qaida and [the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps]? How do we deal with Hezbollah in this process?"
If President Barack Obama decides the U.S. military should do more in Syria, forces are ready, said Panetta. "There is no question in my mind that we have positioned a sufficient force in the Middle East to deal with any contingency at this time."