Panetta downplays Syria chemical weapons threat


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta


Karen Bleiber

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said American intelligence suggests Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not taking "aggressive steps" toward using chemical weapons against the rebel movement trying to topple his rule, according to the Associated Press

Speaking to reporters en route to Kuwait, Panetta said, "I like to believe he's got the message. We've made it pretty clear. Others have as well," reported the AP

That said, Panetta underscored that the US will "continue to monitor [Syria] very closely and we continue to make clear to them that they should not under any means make use of these chemical weapons against their own population," according to CBS.

"That," he said, "would produce serious consequences."

The remarks echo those of US President Barack Obama, who earlier said any movement or use of the chemical weapons stockpile would breach a "red line" and elicit a strong US response, said CNN

More from GlobalPost: Sarin gas: the deadly chemical weapon Syria might use

The secretary's comments come a day after Syria's state-run press expressed "serious fear" that vocal concern over chemical weapons represented Western efforts to frame the regime. 

But Panetta said the threat level has now "leveled off," indicating things may not be as critical as suggested by Syrian defector Major General Adnan Sillou, who used to manage the country's chemical weapons program. On Monday, Sillou told ABC from Turkey that it's "highly possible" Assad will use chemical weapons "to kill his own people because this regime is a killer."

Last week, US intelligence officials said Syrian forces may be preparing a nerve agent called sarin gas for potential explosives use, said the AP

Assad has been fighting a rebellion in Syria for months in violence that has left tens of thousands of people dead. 

Panetta's arrival in Kuwait Tuesday kicked off a four-day visit to the 13,500 US soldiers stationed there, according to the AP