“It’ll be hard for [Assad] to reassume control over the entirety of Syria, but if winning means remaining as president of Syria, I think he is winning,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Gates was critical of the abrupt policy change last September, when President Obama signaled plans to launch a limited military strike against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapon attack, only to drop them when Russia brokered a deal for Syria to surrender its chemical stocks.
“Last fall was a real low point, where we went in the space of a week from saying, ‘Assad must go,’ to ‘Assad must stay,’ in order to fulfill the agreement sponsored by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to get rid of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people,” Gates said.
“And I think we got distracted and lost our perspective,” he continued. “There have been hundreds of atrocities against civilians in this civil war. Fourteen hundred were killed in that chemical attack. But as you say, 150,000 were killed in – by conventional means. And we got distracted from the 150,000 for the 1,400.”
Gates noted that negotiations in Geneva, which aimed to end the conflict by creating a transitional governing body, have collapsed. (After the last meeting ended, in February, Secretary of State John Kerry accusing the regime of having “obstructed and filibustered” while the opposition, he said, had been reasonable and ready to move forward.)
Civil unrest that began in March 2011 degenerated into a bloody civil war that became increasingly complicated as Shi’ite and Sunni terrorists were drawn in on both sides of the conflict. Assad has Hezbollah fighters backing him while the campaign against him includes radical Sunnis, including some affiliated to al-Qaeda.
Gates suggested the U.S. and other countries had missed opportunities to make a difference by supporting the mainstream anti-Assad opposition early on.
“I think there was a chance for the administration to do something that – and others in the region – to do something early on in the civil war,” he said. “I think Assad was back on his heels and a significant amount of assistance at that time might have made a big difference. Now I think it’s very difficult.”
Asked whether the U.S. can live with the situation there, Gates said “I think we may have to.”
“I certainly don’t see a diplomatic solution.”
Gates’ assessment of U.S. foreign policy beyond Syria was not much more optimistic. He agreed with presenter Bob Schieffer that deadlock between the administration and Congress in efforts to solve problems at home hurts U.S. credibility abroad.
“I think that other countries are watching us very carefully,” he said. “Our allies are watching to wonder whether we will be there for them if they are challenged internally or externally.
“Other countries, whether it’s Russia or China or Iran or North Korea, are looking to see if what they perceive as our withdrawal from international leadership, presents them opportunities down the road that they can take advantage of.”
Gates, a Republican who served as secretary of defense under Obama and George W. Bush, retired from government service in July 2011, and now serves as chancellor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.