Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had some harsh words for President Obama’s $500 million plan to arm and train a tiny unit of carefully-vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels and send them into battle against the Assad regime, ISIS, and al-Qaeda. “I think the idea of training somebody from the outside and sending them in is nuts, it’s just not going to work,” said Gates.
Speaking in a Fox News interview intended to become part of a larger special program about the current state of the U.S. military, Gates charged that President Obama did not really think the “New Syrian Force” idea would work, either. In fact, he speculated that President Obama’s own disastrous adventure in Libya, coupled with the President’s dim view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made him “thrice bitten, twice shy” — that is, extremely reluctant to engage in anything but the most minimal operations in Syria.
“My guess is, he saw no good outcome for the United States by intervening directly there,” said Gates.
For his part, the former Secretary of Defense and CIA director agreed with the basic idea of keeping the American presence in Syria sharply limited. “I would not put ground troops in Syria,” he said. “I do think that a safe haven is an achievable thing.”
Gates did not elaborate on whether this “safe haven” would be the equivalent of a no-fly zone enforced against Russian bombers, an idea floated by several of the 2016 presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, including Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Before the Russians began combat operations in Syria, there was occasionally talk of establishing a safe haven along the Turkish border that would be kept clear of Syrian regime forces, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, effectively creating a buffer zone for refugees caught in the crossfire.
However, while Gates believes “The only way you can staunch the humanitarian flow, the humanitarian disaster, is through some kind of a safe haven,” it is hard to see how that would have significantly reduced the migration from Syria into Europe. There would have been refugee camps on both sides of the Turkish border under that scenario, but people probably wouldn’t have been any more interested in establishing semi-permanent residency in the Syrian part of the safe zone… especially when constant maintenance from Western powers seen as fickle in the Middle East would be necessary to keep it running.
It seems damning to assert that everyone knew the New Syrian Force program was nothing but a token gesture, with little purpose beyond generating a bit of favorable domestic news coverage that Obama was doing something about the Syrian crisis, when it was set to consume half a billion dollars in funding (not all of which was actually spent) and put hundreds of lives at risk. A large number of Obama’s Syrian fighters were killed or captured by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.