Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
The Obama administration Tuesday appeared to temper its recent
assertions that the Syrian government may be preparing to use chemical
weapons, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta telling reporters the
relevant intelligence had "really kind of leveled off."
haven't seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move
forward in that way," Panetta told reporters during a flight to Kuwait,
adding that U.S. officials "continue to monitor it 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. That would
produce serious consequences."
U.S. officials told CBS News correspondent David Martin just last
week that monitoring of roughly two dozen bases where President Bashar
Assad is believed to have chemical weapons stored indicated the regime
had begun preparing the materials, including sarin gas, for use.
Satellites had seen trucks moving among the bunkers where the weapons
and agents are believed to be stored. U.S. officials told Martin the
evidence was strong, but circumstantial -- not definitive.
fighters have now inched so close to Assad's stronghold, the capital
city of Damascus, that top U.S. officials had expressed fears the
cornered dictator could try and use his chemical weapons as a last
resort to try and avoid being toppled by the 21-month uprising.
government officials have refused to confirm that they even posses
chemical or biological weapons -- saying only that if they did have them, they would not use them against the Syrian people, or anyone else.
himself never said publicly that Assad was preparing chemical weapons.
He, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, instead issued
repeated, terse warnings to Assad not to take the step.
is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned, that as
the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime
might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," Panetta said last
Asked Tuesday whether the drop in alleged evidence
pointing to chemical weapons preparations might indicate that Assad had
heeded the warning, Panetta said: "I'd like to believe he's got the
message, we've made it pretty clear and others have as well. But you
know it's also clear that the opposition continues to make gains in
Syria and our concern is that if they feel like the regime is threatened
with collapse that they might resort to these kinds of weapons."
senior member of Assad's regime who defected recently tells CBS News,
however, that the dire warnings of a possible sarin gas attack by
Assad's military seem overblown. The defector, who maintains contact
with Syrian military commanders, says those commanders deny any recent
movements of chemical weapons components.
also have told the defector that logistically, they cannot see how the
regime would try and use the deadly weapons effectively against the
rebels -- which the regime regularly refers to as "terrorists" -- they
are such a small and mobile enemy.