Interview with Ryan Crocker: Assad will Prevail ‘Yard by Bloody Yard’

Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Afghanistan in 2011.

U.S. Embassy Kabul

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Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Afghanistan in 2011.

America’s premier diplomat would intervene in Syria if President Obama asked, even though it probably wouldn’t do much good. By Stephanie Gaskell

Ryan Crocker, the retired career diplomat known for his work as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and in many of the world’s hotspots, says he would travel to Syria to try to intervene in the civil war there “in a heartbeat.”

Crocker told Defense One in an interview that he’d come out of retirement again— he’s now the dean of George Bush’s School of Government and Public Services at Texas A&M University — “if I were asked officially,” but he also predicted that the now disjointed and out-gunned Syrian rebel forces ultimately would fail.

“I have never liked the idea of freelance diplomacy, for non-officials going into Syria. Some journalists do, God bless them. What picture we do have of the place comes from those brave souls, but I would only do it if I was asked,” he said. “If I was asked, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

But Crocker, who’s resume rivals that of many hardened combat veterans —  he has served as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan — knows that ending the war in Syria won’t be easy, if not impossible.

“We need to be extremely careful before we take positions that may come back to bite us,” he warned.

Crocker, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Syria from 1998 to 2001, is a Washington state native and likened the war to a massive western wildfire:

“I’m from the West and every now and then we get monster forest fires out there. You can’t put them out. All you can do is contain them. The fire breaks and let them burn themselves out. That’s kind of like Syria. We can’t stop that war. What we can do, or should do, is everything possible that we can to keep it from spreading into Iraq and into Lebanon and it’s already done a little bit of both. We need to stand with the Turks and we need to be very sure that the Jordanians are getting the help and support they need. They’re also vulnerable.”

Crocker, who first tried to retire in 2010 only to be called by President Obama to serve as ambassador in Afghanistan before stepping down last year, echoed the same cautious sentiment about military intervention as top Pentagon and administration officials.

“You can always make a bad situation worse. And then there’s also the issue: ‘Let’s have a no-fly zone.’ Well, a no-fly zone isn’t’ going to stop the war, even if you could successfully enforce it,” he said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have both long urged caution in Syria. “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state,” Dempsey wrote in a letter to the Senate Armed Forces Committee last month. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

And Crocker carries with him a deep understanding of Syria, making him even more cautious.

“I was ambassador there for three years during the time when the old man [Hafez al Assad] died, Bashar took over. They have been getting ready for this type of thing for three decades, ever since the Hama massacre in February ’82,” Crocker said. He was in neighboring Lebanon during the massacre.

“They finished off the Muslim Brothers, maybe 100 of them and they killed up to 10,000-15,000 innocent city civilians in the process. It was pretty horrific,” he recalled. “So, they’ve known that the day of vengeance might come and they’re ready for it. They’ve built a security apparatus, an intelligence apparatus, a military just to be ready for what they’re facing now.  And they know they’re in a fight for their lives so they’re going to stick together and I’d say they have a better than even chance of prevailing.”

Crocker predicts “three theoretical outcomes” for Syria. None of them are pretty.

“One is that the opposition prevails, the other is that the Assad regime prevails and the third is that it settles down into some kind of stalemate. I would bet that the Assads — yard by bloody yard — are going to prevail. They’ve got the discipline, the armaments, and they’ve got the cohesion. The opposition is hugely divided, spending more time it seems fighting among themselves then fighting among Assad’s forces. They will hang together and hang in the fight as long as it takes and I think the longer this goes on the more disunited the opposition becomes.”

“It is an absolutely horrific situation. If someone’s got a workable idea of how you stop it, I haven’t heard that,” he said.

But he’s willing to try.

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