Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed on Friday that al Qaeda has a “presence in Syria.”
At a briefing at the Pentagon with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Panetta was asked by a reporter, “Secretary Panetta, if I may, on al Qaeda in Syria, you’ve said that we don’t have any indication of al Qaeda in that — those double explosions that took place in Damascus. But what kind of assessment do you have on al Qaeda activity in Syria? Because the Syrian government confirms that al-Qaida is active in Syria. Do you have an indication to say that al Qaeda is actually active, how big it is, and is it a concern for you?”
Panetta responded by confirming the terrorist group’s presence, but provided few details.
Al Qaeda anywhere is a concern for us,” said Panetta. “And we do — we do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al Qaeda presence in Syria. But frankly, we don’t have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are. And that’s the reason we can’t really indicate specifically what they are or are not doing. But they are a concern. And frankly, we need to continue to do everything we can to determine what kind of influence they are trying to exert there.
Panetta also reiterated that America’s position is for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to go, but again provided few details on what, if anything, America is doing to hasten his demise.
Obviously, the situation in Syria remains of great concern. This — you know, the cease-fire does not appear to be working. And Annan himself has indicated concerns about whether or not parties are abiding by the cease-fire. We continue to urge Assad to step down, that there must be a change there. They’ve lost their legitimacy by the huge number of deaths that are taking place in Syria.
And again, we are working with the international community to try to make sure we take all steps necessary to try to do what we can to implement the necessary political reforms to have Assad step down and to try to return Syria to the Syrian people.
This is not easy. There are no easy courses here. But I think the most important thing we can do now is to continue to work with the international community to bring pressure on Syria to do the right thing.