The rise of the brutal Islamic State group can partly be blamed on President Barack Obama’s failure to arm moderate Syrian rebels far earlier, said former U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta.
It comes after the United States Congress on Thursday passed Obama’s plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to battle Islamic State jihadists, a key plank of his strategy to smash the militants who have overrun vast areas of Iraq and Syria.
Panetta told CBS’s “60 Minutes” news program in an interview aired Sunday that he and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton had urged Obama in 2012 to arm moderate Syrian rebels against President Bashar Assad.
“I think the president’s concern, and I understand it, was that he had a fear that if we started providing weapons, we wouldn’t know where those weapons would wind up,” said Panetta, defense secretary when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
“My view was: you have to begin somewhere,” added Panetta, also a former CIA director.
Asked if not arming them had been a mistake, he replied: “I think that would’ve helped. And I think in part, we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS.”
Panetta cautioned that it would take “a long time” to defeat the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
“And I think the American people need to know it’s going to take a long time,” he added, describing Iraq’s failure to stem the militant tide “a tragic story.”
Panetta admitted that he had not been confident that pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011 was the right thing to do.
“No, I wasn’t. I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq,” he said.