Panetta: Syrian president hastening own demise

TUNIS, Tunisia – Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of helicopter gunships to counter a civil uprising will prove to be “a nail in Assad’s coffin,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday at the outset of a five-day Mideast tour.

While giving no indication that the Obama administration is contemplating military intervention, Panetta said it is increasingly clear that the Syrian crisis is deepening and that Assad is hastening his own demise.

“If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people ... I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad’s coffin,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him from Washington. “His regime is coming to an end.”

Panetta said he would use his meetings in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan to reinforce an international consensus that Assad must step down and allow a peaceful transition to a democratic form of government.

He said he also will continue consultations on efforts to ensure that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

Panetta will be in Israel just days after U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has cast the Obama administration as too soft on Iran and insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.