Ex-Pentagon chief Gates says Syrian program was 'nuts'

President Obama's first Defense secretary, Robert Gates, called the administration's plan to train and equip Syrian rebels "nuts" in a recent news interview. 

"I think the idea of training somebody from the outside and sending them in is nuts, it's just not going to work," Gates said in an interview with the Fox News Channel's "Special Report," according to Agence France-Press.

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The $500 million a year program envisioned recruiting and training 5,400 Syrian rebels outside of Syria within the first year and sending them back into fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), leading eventually to a force of 15,000 over three years. 

Last week, however, President Obama suspended the program after it produced only about 80 rebels in five months. 

The first group of 54 disbanded after coming under attack from al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, and some of the next group of 71 turned over their U.S.-provided equipment to the terrorist group in return for safe passage. 

Now, the administration said it will distribute weapons and ammunition to anti-ISIS groups it says have been vetted.

Gates also called for a safe zone in Syria, which the Obama administration opposes because that would likely require the U.S.-led coalition to enforce it on the ground.

"The only way you can staunch the humanitarian flow, the humanitarian disaster, is through some kind of a safe haven, and I think that that's achievable," he said. 

The issue of a safe zone has divided 2016 Democratic presidential candidates. During the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: 'I’m just flabbergasted’ by Clinton-Lynch meet AFL-CIO head: Trump’s ‘a fraud’ Sanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton MORE — Obama's former secretary of State — reiterated her call for no-fly or safe zones, while Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Biden spills beans: Sanders will endorse Clinton MORE (I-Vt.) said it would draw the U.S. deeper into a "quagmire of quagmires." 

At the same time, Gates, who also served as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, argued that the U.S. role in the Syrian war "should be limited." 

"I would not put ground troops in Syria," he said. 

Obama said last week in response to a question about Clinton's call for a safe zone that such recommendations amounted to "mumbo jumbo." Obama's former CIA director, retired Gen. David Petraeus, has also called for a no-fly zone. 

Gates, who wrote a memoir that was highly critical of the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy, also said Obama distrusted the military, which was "particularly true in Afghanistan." 

"I think there were people in the White House, and I don't want to name any names, who were constantly goading him," Gates said.

When asked whether Vice President Biden was one of these people, Gates said, "I think so. And I was told so."

Gates said those people were telling the president that "the military is trying to box you in. The military is trying to trap you. The military is trying to bully you. The military is trying to make you do something you don't want to do."

Gates had also criticized Biden, who is mulling a presidential run, in his memoir, calling him "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."