Former Obama Defense, CIA Chief: U.S. 'Has Really Never Had a Strategy' on Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin embraces Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Nov. 20, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The former director of the CIA and Defense Department in the Obama administration said the “fundamental problem” in dealing with Bashar al-Assad and President Trump’s talk of withdrawal “is that the United States has really never had a strategy with regards to Syria.”

At a campaign-rally-style speech in Ohio before spring break, Trump vowed “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon” as the U.S. will “let the other people take care of it now.”

Trump continued to express his desire to pull out, though last week reportedly dropped his insistence for an immediate withdrawal on the objections of military leaders who cautioned that the job is not done there yet. ISIS maintains positions in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and south Damascus, and the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces have had some of their manpower pulled away from the MERV fight to defend Kurdish cities from a Turkish onslaught.

The president has not publicly pushed the prospect of pullout since Assad’s weekend gas attack on civilians in Douma, which killed dozens.

Trump tweeted Wednesday, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

Former DoD and CIA chief Leon Panetta told MSNBC this morning that Trump’s withdrawal comments were “not something that the president should have said with regards to the status of American forces because if we’re going to be able to have some kind of influence in Syria, and it is a chaotic situation, it is important for the United States to have a presence there and to indicate that we have a role to play.”

“By saying what he said, I think he may have sent a signal that somehow the United States would not care whatever happened in Syria, and I think that was dangerous,” he said.

On the lack of any Syria strategy spanning administrations, Panetta stressed that the U.S. has “been reactive to the moment and to the crisis without thinking about what is our strategy in Syria, and as a result of that we’ve been somewhat ambivalent about how to handle that chaos.”

“And so, rather than developing that strategy, rather than trying to play a role in forcing Syria to figure out some kind of political settlement there that would get rid of Assad and allow Syrians to decide what their political future is, frankly, we have been hitting ISIS, on the side talking about Assad, but really don’t have an overall strategy,” he added. “And if we’re going to strike Syria I don’t think this ought to be a reflex action without a strategy. That’s what this administration has to do, is figure out what is our long-term strategy in Syria going to be.”

Panetta said a current danger is reactive policy based on the current mood of “a president who doesn’t operate by process but operates by instinct and gut reaction, and that makes it very unpredictable.”

“Who hasn’t taken the time to think out what are the consequences of military action here? What is it going to mean for the United States? What is our long-term strategy?” he said. “All of that requires thought, it requires consideration. It does not require a reflex action.”