The US military was prepared for any action against Syria that might be necessary, but officials were still focused on more aggressive international pressure to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday.
Panetta, speaking to reporters on his way to Singapore for a security conference, stopped short of advocating US action without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, but said the international community needed to act more aggressively to obtain Assad’s expulsion while there was time.
“This is an intolerable situation,” Panetta said. “We cannot be satisfied with what is going on. And the international community has to take further steps to make sure that Assad steps down.”
Asked about the possibility of US military action without UN endorsement, Panetta said “I cannot envision that”, adding that it was important to have “the kind of support we need to achieve the mission”.
His remarks came a day after Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, suggested military action without UN authorisation might be necessary if the Security Council failed to agree on a course to address the Syrian situation.
Asked if he disagreed with Rice’s assessment, Panetta said the US maintained all possible options for future action.
China, one of Assad’s key allies along with Russia, said on Thursday it was keeping faith with mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria, sidestepping calls for tougher action after the killing of more than 100 people in the town of Houla.
The two allies have for months blocked UN efforts to take more robust action against Assad, but the massacre last week in Houla prompted an outcry and fresh calls for a decisive response.
Senior Arab officials used an Arab-Chinese co-operation forum, attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, to try to persuade Beijing to change its stance, though without apparent success.
“We continue to support Annan’s efforts… We knew from the beginning that his path would not be strewn with flowers,” Yang said after the forum.
“The attack at Houla shows that stopping the violence and the deaths is a priority which can no longer be delayed,” he said. “Annan’s efforts are facing difficulties but no one can deny that they are making progress in some respects.”
Annan’s plan envisages a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from urban areas and talks on a political transition. Syrian rebels say incidents such as the Houla massacre show the plan has failed.
The Arab world itself is divided on how to respond to the violence in Syria, but those states in the more hawkish camp pressed their case on the Chinese minister at the forum.
“We greatly respect the efforts of China to find a solution in Syria,” said Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah. “But we hope it will redouble this effort to stop the machine of violence and death and to put more pressure on the Syrian government to respect… the Annan plan.”
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former political prisoner swept to power in last year’s “Arab Spring”, said inaction could lead to foreign military intervention in Syria.
“China could play a decisive role in halting the suffering of the Syrian people and closing off the option of military intervention by pushing for a scenario similar to the one in Yemen,” he said. – Reuters