Russia has all the instruments it needs to pressure the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at United States Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Wednesday.
“There's no question in my mind that Russia could play a very significant role in putting pressure on Assad. They've got a port there; they have influence there; they have dealings there,” he said.
“Unfortunately, they - the position they've taken in the U.N. was to oppose the resolution and that's a shame. But there is no question that they and the Chinese, if they want to advance the cause of the Syrian people, they could bring great pressure on them to do the right thing,” Panetta said.
Syria has been the scene of continuous anti-government protests for nearly a year. According to the United Nations, more than 7,500 people have died in the unrest, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blames on "armed terrorist gangs."
Russia has been seen in the West as the staunchest supporter of the Assad regime as it has used its veto right in the UN Security Council to block a resolution calling on Assad to immediately end violence against protesters and launch dialogue with opposition groups.
Moscow insists that both the government and “armed terrorist gangs” operating in Syria should be held responsible for the unrest, warning against any attempts by foreign nations to interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs.
“Both countries have been embarrassed, I think, by the stand that they took on the U.N. resolution,” Panetta said.
“You know, if Russia wants to maintain its contacts with Syria, maintain their port and have some involvement with whatever government replaces Assad, I think they might be thinking about an approach that would allow them to have some impact on where this goes,” he said.