WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the Obama administration's decision not to arm the Syrian opposition, saying the country risked being pushed into an all-out civil war if efforts to secure a smooth political transition fail.

"We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point. I know others have made their own decisions," Panetta said in an interview on Thursday.

"But I think it's very important right now that everybody focus on a smooth and responsible political transition," he said.

"If we don't get this done in a responsible way, there's a real danger that the situation there could deteriorate into a terrible civil war."

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