The Obama administration needs to come up with a plan for Syria and then tell Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay “out of the way,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a rare Washington appearance.
Gates, who served for nearly five years under Presidents Bush and Obama, presented his views on Syria strategy to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
“I think we should decide what we want to do in Syria — whether it’s a safe haven or anything else — and basically say, just tell the Russians, this is what we’re going to do. Stay out of the way,” he said. “If it’s a safe haven and it’s in an area that doesn’t threaten Assad’s hold on power, then it seems to me that the changes of then challenging us are significantly reduced.”
Putin has deployed troops, fighter jets, and other weapons to Syria, where U.S. officials say his forces are helping President Bashar al-Assad’s military. Russian officials have said they are also targeting Islamic State militants, but American officials say that is not the case.
Gates, who held various posts at the CIA, has interacted with Putin numerous times over the years. While some have called the former KGB spy unpredictable, Gates said, “He knows exactly what he’s doing” and “in the short-to-medium term, he’s being successful at it.”
Gates, who came to Capitol Hill to counsel senators exploring institutional changes at the Pentagon, also weighed in on the U.S. fight against ISIS and America’s approach to Putin and Russia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Russian empire weighs on Putin, who “is all about lost power, lost glory, lost empire,” Gates said. “And he is not crazy…He is very much an opportunist.”
Gates said Putin has two strategic objectives: “Restore Russia to great-power status so that no problem in the world can be addressed without Russia’s involvement and without Russia’s agreement” and “create a buffer of states friendly to Russia on the periphery of Russia.”
This is why Putin has ordered Russian forces into Ukraine, a nation that in recent years has been looking to align itself more with Europe, not Moscow.
“He is not a madman,” Gates said. “I think if he encounters resistance, he will hesitate, he will pull back.”
Gates said, “He has seen an opportunity to cement Russia’s position in the Middle East through helping Assad…Putin will be happy to throw him overboard whenever that’s convenient as long as Russia has another person coming in who will be attentive to their interests and allow them to keep the naval base at Tartus and their military position in Syria.”