Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told Business Insider that the Obama administration’s failure to act after the regime of Syria’s embattled president used chemical weapons against civilians was a “serious mistake” that has hurt America’s credibility in the world.
Gates, who is promoting his new book, “A Passion for Leadership,” sat down with Business Insider last week and gave his perspective on current conflicts in the Middle East.
“I used to tell presidents, you have to be very, very cautious about drawing red lines or issuing ultimatums,” said Gates, the only defence secretary to hold the job under two presidents for two different political parties.
“As I put it, if you cock that pistol,” he added, “you have to be ready to fire it.”
Gates served as defence secretary from 2006 to 2011. The year after Gates left the job, President Barack Obama told White House reporters that a “red line” for US intervention in Syria would come if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. And over the course of the conflict, the Assad regime has been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
At the time Obama made his first “red line” comment in 2012, Assad’s soldiers had been known to shoot protesters as the regime tried to tamp down a rebellion. But the use of chemical weapons hadn’t yet been conclusively proven.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” Obama told reporters that year. “… We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
Over the following year, Obama doubled down on his “red line” comment. But once evidence emerged that Assad’s forces had used sarin gas in an attack that killed nearly 1,500 people in a Damascus suburb, Obama eventually backed down after threatening a military response. He sought congressional approval for military intervention in Syria, which he was not likely to get, and eventually brokered a deal with Russia that saw Assad agreeing to destroy most of the regime’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
“Backing away from reacting once the red line was crossed impacted American credibility not just in the Middle East, but I think it was being watching in Moscow and Tehran and Beijing and Pyongyang and elsewhere,” Gates said. “So not acting in response to crossing the red line was a serious mistake in my view.”
Gates also said that “the rest of the world must know that when the president of the United States draws a red line, that it is dangerous, if not fatal, to cross it.”
The defence secretary who was in office during the sarin gas attack largely echoed Gates’ comments in a recent interview. Chuck Hagel, who served as defence secretary for two years from February 2013 to February 2015, told the Atlantic Council earlier this month that backing down on the red line “hurt the credibility of the president of the United States.”
But Gates’ stance hasn’t always been so firm.
In January 2014, before the rise of the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) threw Syria into further chaos, Gates told The Wall Street Journal that he was against military intervention.
“I described it as throwing gasoline on a very complex fire,” Gates said at the time. “Syria’s two closest allies are Russia and Iran. Our military intervention may have brought them in in some way or another. And once you launch a military attack, and for Syria, whether it was a humanitarian zone or a no-fly zone, it begins with an act of war.”
Russia and Iran ended up getting heavily involved in Syria even without being provoked by US military intervention. Iran sends Shia fighters to Syria to aid the Assad regime, and Russia started conducting airstrikes in support of Assad last year.
But Gates did admit in the 2014 interview that the US could have done more to support moderate Syrian rebels who were fighting the Assad regime.
He repeated this statement in his interview with Business Insider.
“I still believe that sending large numbers of US military forces into Syria would have been a mistake, but there are other ways to accomplish our objectives,” Gates said.
He subsequently suggested that the US should have began assisting opposition groups as early as 2011, before Obama drew his red line.
“If we had been able to move with agility and quickly in the fall of 2011 and early 2012 in terms of getting weaponry and intelligence and so on to opposition groups that then were still reasonably moderate, there was a point at which Assad was really on his back foot and I think vulnerable,” he said. “But I think sending regular US forces into Syria then as well as now would be a mistake.”
Though it’s unlikely that Obama would have sent a large force of ground troops into Syria in response to the sarin gas attack, airstrikes on regime targets were on the table.
The US is now conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. As the civil war raged and security in the country eroded, ISIS took advantage of the power vacuum that opened up. The group seized a large swath of territory in Syria, including Raqqa, the city that has become its global base of operations.
And the agreement to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria hasn’t held up. Bloomberg reported last year that an international monitoring body found traces of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, in an inspection of the Syrian government’s Scientific Studies and Research Center.
Assad has blamed the chemical-weapons use on opposition fighters, but Western officials have said that rebels probably wouldn’t have the capability of using weapons like sarin gas.
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