(Newsroom America) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that Iran was increasing its presence inside war-torn Syria, through efforts to bolster the regime of President Bashar Assad by training militias and other tactics.
"There's now indications that they’re trying to develop or trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime," Panetta said during a media briefing at the Pentagon. "So we are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us."
Panetta went onto say the U.S. hoped Tehran would reconsider its role in backing the Syrian regime, especially over how much it wanted to deepen ties to the beleagured Assad regime.
"The Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran," he said.
The Iranian interference is only raising the death toll, Panetta said, adding that it seeks "to bolster a regime that we think, ultimately, is going to come down."
Among other things, Panetta cited increased defections from the Syrian military as signs that it was crumbling in the face of sustained opposition from rebel groups.
In fact, he said, Assad’s former prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, fled the country last week and a number of key generals have defected in recent months as well.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 18-month uprising is obviously taking its toll on the Syrian military.
"I actually think that’s why Iran is stepping in to form this militia, to take some of the pressure off of the Syrian military," he said.
The sustained fighting has left the Syrian military with resupply and morale problems. "Any army would be taxed with that kind of pace," said Dempsey.
While not specific regarding planned U.S. intervention, if any, Panetta did say the Pentagon and the Obama administration were planning for "number of contingencies."
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