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US Ground Troops Could Help Secure Syrian Chemical Sites Only in Peaceful Situation, Says Defense Chief

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- At his news conference Thursday, Defense Secretary Panetta said the concern now about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is what to do with them should the Assad regime fall.  Panetta said U.S. troops might play a role in securing the sites only if there’s a permissive environment in post-Assad Syria, but that they’re not an option in a “hostile atmosphere.”

Panetta said the current discussion is that if Assad falls, “How do we secure the CBW sites? What do we do to deal with that situation? And that is a discussion that we are having.”

Panetta explained the possibility of U.S. ground troops playing a role in securing sites this way: “You always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation.”  However, he said “in a hostile situation, we're not planning for that.”  Panetta explained further that a U.S. troop option to secure the sites depends a lot on “what happens in a transition. Is there a permissive atmosphere? Or is it a hostile atmosphere? And that'll tell you a lot.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Dempsey said the U.S. has done assessments of what might be needed for the scenarios Panetta mentioned.  “We're engaged in planning to develop options against alternative futures, you know, alternative future one, collaboration or cooperation, permissiveness, non-permissive, hostile, all of which would have different requirements.”  Dempsey acknowledged that training rebels was not one of those options.

Panetta said the “greater concern” about the Syrian stockpile is what steps the international community needs to do when Assad falls so “that there is a process and a procedure to ensure that we get our hands on securing those sites. That, I think, is the bigger challenge right now.”

His comments help explain why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was back at the Pentagon Wednesday night after a goodbye visit a month ago.  Panetta explained that the visit was part of the ongoing discussion with Syria’s neighbors about how to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons if Assad falls.  The talks include “what steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured and that they don't wind up in the wrong hands.”

As part of those regional discussions Dempsey said he’d spoken with his Turkish, Israeli, Lebanese and Jordanian counterparts. The U.S. military has a small military planning team in Jordan. “Messaging, such as our president did, that -- that the use of chemical weapons would -- those that would be responsible would be held accountable," he said, adding, “I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it, if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting.”

Interestingly Dempsey acknowledged that scientists have told U.S. officials that the Sarin the Syrians mixed in early December can only remain viable for 60 days. “That's what -- what the scientists tell us...I'd still be reluctant to handle it myself,” said Dempsey.

Dempsey said preventing the Syrians from using their chemical weapons is “almost unachievable” because U.S. intelligence would require constant surveillance “to actually see it before it happened, and that's -- that's unlikely, to be sure.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio