US: Iran 'building Syrian militia'

Iran is playing a growing role supporting the Syrian regime and is helping to build and train a militia to fight opposition forces, US defence chiefs say.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters that the militia, generally made up of Syrian Shiite forces, was being used to take the pressure off the Syrian regime forces, which have been at war for almost 18 months.

“Any army would be taxed with that kind of pace,” Gen Dempsey said. “They are having resupply problems, they are having morale problems, they are having the kind of wear and tear that would come of being in a fight for as long as they have.”

Gen. Dempsey also said that it appeared Syrian rebels were able to shoot down a warplane, but said he had seen no indication that they were yet armed with heavy weapons or surface-to-air missiles.

He said the MiG fighter could have been shot down with small arms fire. Syria has blamed the crash on a technical malfunction, but Gen. Dempsey said the cause “didn’t appear to be mechanical”.

Gen. Dempsey and defence secretary Leon Panetta voiced concerns about Iran’s growing presence in Syria, even as President Bashar Assad’s regime steps up its aerial attacks against the rebel forces.

Fierce fighting and attacks from warplanes and helicopter gunships have pushed the opposition forces back in key fronts, such as Aleppo and the fighting - including alleged massacres by the regime – have led to the deaths of more than 20,000, according to activists.

Mr Panetta said it had become obvious that Iran was doing more for the Syrian regime, including providing assistance and training.

“We do not think that Iran ought to be playing that role at this moment in time,” he said. He said “it’s dangerous, that it’s adding to the killing that’s going on in Syria and that it tries to bolster a regime that we think ultimately is going to come down”.

Asked about military options for intervention in Syria, Gen. Dempsey said the US had been in discussions with Jordan and Turkey about the possible need for a safe zone, because the two countries neighbouring Syria are seeing an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting.

“And with a safe haven would probably come some form of no-fly zone, but we’re not planning anything unilaterally,” Gen. Dempsey said.

Mr Panetta reiterated earlier assertions that right now, creating a no-fly zone in the region “is not a front-burner issue” for the US. Instead, he said, the focus was on providing humanitarian and non-lethal assistance and ensuring the chemical and biological weapons in Syria are secure.

The Obama administration has insisted repeatedly that Assad must go and that diplomatic and economic pressures, including sanctions, must be given time to work. Defence officials, including Mr Panetta, have warned that putting a no-fly zone in place would be difficult because of the Syrian regime’s relatively modern and plentiful air defence systems.

Meanwhile China accused some Western countries of seeking regime change in Syria and said their increasing support for rebel forces in the civil war hurt the solidarity of the United Nations Security Council.

The remarks in the official People’s Daily newspaper came as China hosted an envoy of Assad for talks. No details of the talks were released.

China and Russia have repeatedly used their veto power at the security council to block strong Western- and Arab-backed action against Assad. Moscow is a key ally of Assad, and China cites its own stance against military intervention.

The Communist Party’s People’s Daily repeated China’s position that the only solution to the Syrian crisis was a political one and criticised some Western countries’ open discussion of a no-fly zone as undermining a multilateral approach led by outgoing UN peace envoy Kofi Annan.

“This destroys the internal unity of the security council, causing the international community to be unable to reach consensus and for Annan’s mediation efforts to be unable to play a role,” the paper said in a commentary.

“All kinds of indications show that the rumours that some Western powers are looking outside the framework of the United Nations for a solution to the Syrian problem are not baseless.”

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