Leon Panetta talks Russia, Syria, and the "red line" in North Korea

Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe that Bashar al-Assad has won Syria’s civil war.

“No, I really don’t,” Panetta said. “You know, I think that there’s no question that Assad has been reinforced by the Russians, by Iran, by Hezbollah, by the fact that no one was willing to take him on directly. And so there’s no question he has -- he’s exerted some strength here in terms of trying to retain control of Syria. But the fact is that there is no future in Syria with Assad.

“He has killed his own people. He’s committed atrocities. There is no way that a future Syria is going to continue under an Assad regime,” Panetta said. “That’s a reality. And I think the Russians need to understand that and work with us to ultimately remove Assad from power. I don’t think we ought to give up on that.” 

Most military analysts believe that the Assad regime, with the support of Russian forces, still has the upper hand in the conflict, despite a recent U.S. attack on a Syrian airbase. Panetta, however, says that Secretary of State Tex Tillerson, who is visiting Russia this week, may be able to make progress in convincing the Kremlin to ditch Assad.

“I think the Russians have to decide what is in their fundamental interest here?” Pantetta said. “Is it to take on the United States? Is it to take on other Arab nations in the Middle East? Take on the world community that has made clear we’re not going to tolerate additional chemical attacks? Is that what they want, or do they want to try to work with the United States and others to make sure this never happens again?

He continued: “The Russians, in my experience, know when they have an opportunity to try to move in the right direction. And this is an opportunity for them to try to do what is right. So I don’t -- I don’t automatically assume that Russia is going to go in the other direction. We’ve got to deal with them in tough ways. We’ve got to make clear that we’re going to use military force again if we have to. But in the end, we’ve got to convince them that they’ve got to work with us.” 

Panetta also weighed in on North Korea, and what would be a “red line” in that deteriorating situation. After noting that April 15 is the birthday of the nation’s founder and that they tend to do something “provocative” on that day, he went on discuss the one thing he thinks the U.S. couldn’t tolerate.

“[The real concern here would be that as they continue to develop their ICBM capacity that they try to test an ICBM,” Panetta said. “And that they’re crazy enough to put a miniaturized nuclear weapon at the top of that ICBM in order to test it. Not necessarily to attack but to test it. I think if we see that, if intelligence presents that kind of scenario, that would be very dangerous in terms of the United States in that region and I think would indeed cross the line in dealing with North Korea.”