US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will head to the Middle East next week and is expected to meet with Israeli and Jordanian officials about the escalating conflict in Syria and concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Panetta’s visit comes at a critical time, as according to reports this week, the US is considering its options for more direct involvement in Syria’s civil war. Reports this week also indicated that Iranian leaders would also begin supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s 16-month bloody crackdown.
In light of this, the Pentagon’s press secretary George Little said the US military was doing prudent planning on options for Syria, but provided no details. He added that the US believed that no Al-Qaida affiliates had a significant presence inside the Syrian opposition battling Assad’s regime.
Little said Panetta also plans to meet with Egypt’s newly elected President Mohammed Mursi and will stop in Tunisia, showing America’s commitment to the government reforms in those two countries. “The secretary is very much looking forward to meeting with senior Egyptian officials and to encourage them to continue the political transition that’s taking place,” Little said.
Panetta’s trip to Egypt comes on the heels of a mid-July visit there by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also met Mursi and Egypt’s top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Egypt’s turbulent democratic transition, which has seen the military wrestling for influence with the new president, has been a cause for concern in the White House.