Panetta: US paying the price for not arming Syrian rebels

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in an interview broadcast late Sunday that the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can be tied in part to President Obama’s decision not to arm moderate Syrian rebels.

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“The real key was how can we develop a leadership group among the opposition that would be able to take control,” Panetta said on “60 Minutes,” reflecting on a recommendation from top administration officials in 2012 to arm the rebels against President Bashar Assad. “And my view was to have leverage to do that, we would have to provide the weapons and the training in order for them to really be willing to work with us in that effort.”

“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,” he said. “My view was, ‘You have to begin somewhere.’"

“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 added.

Panetta said “it’s going to take a long time” to defeat ISIS, which is “as dangerous” and “as fanatical” as al Qaeda.

Panetta called the rise in Iraq of ISIS, which has taken over more than a third of that country in recent weeks, a “tragic story.”

“I think what went wrong was that [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki, who had the opportunity to kind of hold all of this together just turned on the Sunnis, fed into the historical sectarian divisions that have marred that country for centuries,” Panetta said. “And basically undercut and undermined the security force in Iraq and created, I think, the ingredients that led to what we see today in Iraq.”

Panetta also said he was not confident that pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011 was the right thing to do.

“I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq,” Panetta said. “The decision was that we ought to at least try to maintain 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops there, plus keeping some of our intelligence personnel in place, to be able to continue the momentum in the right direction.

“And frankly, having those troops there I think would've given us greater leverage on Maliki to try to force him to do the right thing as well,” he added.