By Mike Mount
As images of grisly massacres continue to flow from Syrian opposition groups, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States should not move forward with unilateral military action without the authorization of the United Nations.
"No, I cannot envision that," Panetta said when asked if the United States would bypass the world body to take action in Syria to remove President Bashar al-Assad. But he left the door open by saying, "I think it is important for the U.S. to protect every possible option for taking action in the future."
His comments were made Thursday aboard a U.S. Air Force plane taking him to a conference in Asia. At the conference, he is expected to promote the new U.S. military strategy that puts the Defense Department's main focus on Asia, instead of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, where the country has been fighting for over 10 years.
"There is no question that we are very concerned about the atrocities that are taking place in Syria," Panetta said. "... This is an intolerable situation. We cannot be satisfied with what's going on and the international community has got to take further steps to make sure that Assad steps down."
For the United States, he said, additional steps means "to continue to put pressure on Russia to do what it can to achieve that goal. It means continuing to explore every other possible option here to try to continue the effort to get Assad to step down."
Panetta echoed earlier comments he and others in the Obama administration have made that the international community must work together to pressure the Syrian leadership to step down.
"I think it's very important right now that we work with the international community because we share the same goals and concerns here," he said. "My hope would be the international community becomes much more aggressive at deciding what additional steps are necessary here."
Asked if other countries in the region could be dragged into the Syrian conflict if the fighting drags on, starting a sectarian proxy war, Panetta said he has some concerns.
"There are countries like Iran and others (that) are already involved that are trying to assist Assad and there are other groups, both good and bad, that are engaged," he said.
"The longer this goes on, the greater the threat the situation is going to get worse in terms of what happens ultimately when Assad steps down. I think the key right now is to have an effective transition and doing it in a way that continues to provide stability for Syria."