ABOARD AN AIR FORCE JET -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that the U.S. should not take military action in Syria without authorization by the United Nations, a position seemingly at odds with that of another senior U.S. official who said the diplomatic channel has reached an impasse.
Panetta’s comments, made Thursday aboard a U.S. Air Force aircraft on his way to Asia, came a day after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said military action without U.N. backing in response to continuing bloodshed in Syria was becoming the “most probable scenario.”
Asked whether there was a scenario in which the U.S could act militarily without U.N. approval, Panetta said, “No, I cannot envision that.”
The Pentagon is doing contingency planning for military action in Syria, Panetta said, and left the door open to possible military intervention in the future. But he stuck by the administration’s position that it would do so only with broad international support.
“Ultimately, the international community and the president of the United States are going to have to decide what steps we take,” he told reporters aboard his plane.
The differing statements reflect the struggle within the Obama administration to come up with a viable plan for halting the killing as the regime of President Bashar Assad is continuing a brutal crackdown on opposition forces seeking to drive him from power.
The pressure on the Obama administration to consider military steps has intensified after a massacre last week of more than 100 people, mostly children and women, in the Syrian township of Houla. Then, this week, U.N. observers in Syria reported finding the bodies of 13 men who had been bound and apparently executed at close range.
The administration has called for Assad to step down, but its efforts have focused on using sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the regime. Russia, one of Syria’s strongest allies, joined a Security Council statement condemning the recent killings but is blocking further economic sanctions.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, recently called for the U.S. to arm Syrian rebels. The administration is providing humanitarian aid and other non-lethal assistance to the rebels, but it has resisted calls for military intervention to avoid getting involved in a potentially messy civil war.
“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,” Panetta said, noting that Russia should increase its effort to ease the crisis.
Asked to comment on the apparent discrepancy between statements by Rice and Panetta, George Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said the two officials were not at odds.
“At this time, we’re not contemplating unilateral military action, and the focus continues to be on diplomatic and economic action,” he said.
The U.S. and its NATO allies intervened militarily in 1999 to halt ethnic killing in Kosovo, without U.N. authorization to use force. But the Obama administration cites a more recent precedent: last year’s U.N.-backed air campaign in Libya that helped halt the killing of civilians and aided rebels in driving Moammar Kadafi’s regime from power.
Panetta is beginning a weeklong trip that will take him to Singapore, Vietnam and India, three countries that the administration is forging closer ties with as part of a new emphasis on Asia after a decade of war in the Middle East.
For the record, 3:42 p.m. June 11: This post refers to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, as saying that military action without U.N. backing was becoming the “most probable scenario” in response to the continuing bloodshed in Syria. In fact, Rice was describing different scenarios about how the crisis might unfold and said that the most probable was a proxy conflict in which countries would have to decide “whether they’re prepared to take actions” without U.N. Security Council authorization.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, center, briefs reporters on board his plane Thursday en route to Singapore. Credit: Jim Watson / Pool Photo