Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday that Syria was “spinning out of control” just hours after an apparent suicide blast killed of the regime’s defense minister and deputy defense minister in a stunning attack on a government building in Damascus.
“It’s obvious that what is happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting,” Panetta said of the attacks which claimed the lives of highest-ranking officials known in the 16-month conflict to date.
“This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” he added, arguing that “the violence there has only gotten worse” as Bashar al-Assad’s regime has ignored “all of the concerns that we’ve expressed about the need for Assad to step down, the need for a peaceful transition.”
President Obama called President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Wednesday and Syria was among the topics of discussion, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed. Russia remains one of the strongest allies of the Syrian regime.
Panetta called on the international community to “bring maximum pressure” on the regime, but made no offers of Western military assistance. Syrian fighters pouring into Turkey have pleaded for direct military intervention against Assad.
The secretary spoke at a previously scheduled press conference with Britain’s top defense minister, Philip Hammond, who said that Wednesday’s events put greater importance on Syria to implement the peace plan offered by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“Both sides need to understand that the international community is determined to see an orderly and peaceful transfer of power in Syria,” Hammond said, especially because of the necessity to safeguard Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that those stocks were being moved, according to intelligence officials, but the reason was unclear.
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department on Wednesday designated 29 senior officials of the Syrian government as subject to sanctions. The U.S. also sanctioned five companies linked to the Syrian government agency responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons and the missiles for delivering them. Another company owned by billionaire Rami Makhluf, whom the department called a "corrupt crony" of Assad, was also sanctioned. The move freezes any assets these companies or people have in the U.S., and bars U.S. persons or companies from doing business with them.