News Column

Gates, Panetta Slam Obama's Approach to Syria

September 18, 2013

UPI International Top News

leon panetta
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (file photo)

Two former Obama administration defense secretaries, speaking together at a forum in Texas, criticized their former boss' handling of the situation in Syria.

Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration, and his replacement, Democrat Leon Panetta, both said the president should have acted differently, though they disagreed on whether to use unilateral military action to intervene after a chemical weapons attack that's suspected of killing 1,400 civilians in the bloody two-year civil war, The New York Times reported.

A United Nations report issued this week states the attack used sarin gas, a nerve agent, and the United States has argued evidence in the report leaves little doubt it was carried out by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

U.N. inspectors plan to return to Syria soon to follow up on other allegations of chemical use, the head of the inspection team said.

Ake Sellstrom, leader of the chemical weapons inspection team that visited Syria earlier, said the inspection could occur as soon as next week, CNN reported Wednesday.

Syrian ally Russia criticized the inspectors' report as "distorted" and defended its ally.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said the inspectors' report was "one-sided" and based on insufficient evidence, Russia Today reported.

"The point here is not about accusing parties," Ryabkov said. "[The] point is ... that those inspectors of the U.N. should come back to Syria to complete their investigation."

Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday Syria gave a Russian diplomat evidence opposition forces were involved in the use of chemical weapons in August. The report didn't indicate the nature of the evidence.

Russia maintains it believes Syrian rebels may have carried out the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would veto any U.N. motion OK'ing the use of force if Syria doesn't comply with its chemical disarmament obligations.

Lavrov also attacked the U.N. report as unprofessional and unconvincing.

The back-and-forth mirrors the domestic debate over military action by the United States.

Speaking at a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Gates and Panetta both said they would have encouraged Obama to act differently with the Russians.

Gates was particularly critical of the Russian offer to help disarm Assad's chemical arsenal. Asked by moderator David Gergen whether the United States should trust Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gates answered, "Are you kidding me?"

Despite his skepticism over Russian efforts, Gates said he would not counsel the president to strike Syria with missiles.

"My bottom line is that I believe that to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days, to underscore or validate a point or a principle, is not a strategy," Gates said. "If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad. ... Haven't Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it's launched?"

Panetta disagreed, arguing the "red line" Obama drew on the use of chemical weapons must be enforced if the United States is to show the world when the United States threatens military action "we back it up."

"When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word," Panetta said.

Both men said they would not have asked Congress to approve a military strike, saying the risk is too great lawmakers would rebuff the president and weaken him.

The weapons inspectors' report did not assign blame for the attack. But it detailed the large size and particular shapes of the munitions and the direction from which two of them were fired.

Non-proliferation experts said the report appeared to implicate Assad's regime, which has said insurgents carried out the attack. Russia has argued it makes no sense that Syrian forces were responsible.

"We have very serious reasons to believe that this was an act of provocation," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow in a news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

"We want the events of Aug. 21 to be investigated dispassionately, objectively and professionally."

When reporters asked him about the discovery of Cyrillic lettering on one of the rockets that delivered the gas, Lavrov said it meant nothing. He said it was possible other nations, including some in the West, counterfeited old Soviet weaponry, The Washington Post reported.

Fabius said he saw the situation totally differently. He said the inspectors' report seemed to leave "no doubt" Assad's forces were to blame for the chemical weapons attack.

The Russian-French dispute came as the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- met at U.N. headquarters in New York to negotiate a resolution calling for Syria's chemical weapons to be dismantled and destroyed.

The U.N. ambassadors were scheduled to meet again Wednesday, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said.

The resolution is based on a framework agreement reached Saturday between Washington and Moscow, giving the Security Council authority to review Syria's compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria agreed to join as the U.S.-Russian framework was finalized.

Under the framework agreement, the Assad regime is expected to submit a "comprehensive listing" of all its chemical weapons supplies and facilities by the end of this week. All the weapons are to be destroyed by June 30.

The U.S.-Russian framework also says if Syria doesn't comply with its obligations, the Security Council would have a right to impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which lets the council take military action to "restore international peace and security."

But the United States and its allies understand that statement differently than Russia.

Lavrov and other Russian officials say the statement does not actually say the U.N. resolution would be incorporated under Chapter VII. They say it simply lists Chapter VII as an option available to the council at a future date.

This opens the possibility a further resolution would be needed if Syrian non-compliance becomes an issue, the Times said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Tuesday he hoped the spirit of Saturday's framework agreement would "help forge unity in the Security Council."

He also expressed hope any Security Council resolution "can really be an enforceable one."

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Original headline: Former U.S. defense secretaries disagree with Obama's Syria moves

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