Panetta Calls on Russia to Cooperate in Syria

Russian involvement necessary for post-Assad stability, the Defense secretary says.

Rebels or terrorists? Fighters clean their weapons and check ammunition on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 14, 2012.

Syrian Rebels clean their weapons and check ammunition on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria.

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Hours after news that NATO missiles began arriving in Turkey, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called on Russia to start cooperating with a growing coalition of Western nations who are backing rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government.

[RELATED: Patriot Missile Parts Arrive in Turkey]

Russia, a known ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has balked at previous requests to support the opposition. Moscow slammed the U.S. decision last week to formally recognize the rebel groups as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Panetta continued to pressure Russia, a United Nations Security Council member, Tuesday afternoon as Assad continues to lose his grip after 20 months of fighting.

"This is not going to be easy. It requires a strong international effort to ensure this is heading in the right direction," Panetta said while speaking at the National Press Club. "It would be helpful if Russia would participate in the effort to try to ensure there is a smooth political transition."

Panetta referenced the humanitarian help the United States has provided to hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighboring countries, and efforts to maintain control of Assad's chemical and biological weapons sites.

The U.S. has also offered non-lethal aid to the resistance movement in order to "develop their capability" to take over power if Assad falls, Panetta said. A government official told U.S. News earlier in December this includes cameras rebel fighters can use to post YouTube videos online, and communications equipment to overcome Assad's efforts to silence the fighters with media blackouts.

[PHOTOS: Refugee Crisis Escalating in Syria]

Russia sent a squadron of Navy warships to the coast of Syria Tuesday to prepare for a possible evacuation of Russians from the war-torn country. This follows reports that a senior Russian diplomat said Assad is losing control.

Russia had dispatched ships to the Syrian port of Tartus – the only remaining Soviet-era Navy base outside Russia – in early December to resupply and make "minor repairs."

This most recent military move comes on the same day as NATO Patriot missile batteries began arriving in Turkey. The six batteries, accompanied by hundreds of NATO troops, are meant to offset a potential Syrian missile attack.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.