If there’s one thing Ryan Crocker believes is vital, it’s history.
For the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait (not in that order), looking to the past can help leaders understand current quagmires in the Middle East and how to best engage in the moment.
“If you’re trying to understand today, you’ve got to understand yesterday,” he told students at Georgia State University during a recent visit to Atlanta.
Mr. Crocker, who managed American diplomatic engagement during segments of the grueling U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, visited Georgia to talk about the roots of the Syrian conflict and its current trajectory. Unfortunately, his outlook was bleak, based on perspective gained from serving two three-year stints during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s.
“That conflict lasted 15 years. Syria is way more complicated with many more actors. We’re only five years into this,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview facilitated by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, which hosted Mr. Crocker during his visit and organized an evening panel discussion.
During the interview just after Thanksgiving, forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were on the verge of taking the city of Aleppo from rebel groups. Mr. Crocker said he considered it fallen already at the time.
This week, even as world powers agreed to a ceasefire to let civilians leave, Assad’s forces reportedly seemed bent on making worse an already acute humanitarian disaster. Reports of summary executions of rebels — and even women and children believed to have ties to regime opponents — have begun to trickle out of the war zone, with fears rising that the sectarian violence could escalate even further. The Syrians and Russians say that they’re only targeting “terrorists.”
“What we are seeing now is the makings of a very long-term insurgency and war in Syria at a granular level in various places,” said Hrair Balian, direct of the Conflict Resolution program at the Carter Center, who joined Mr. Crocker on the World Affairs panel. “Whatever victory the regime wins today on the battlefield, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, because this insurgency will continue and Syria will not see a moment of peace in the foreseeable future.” Dr. Balian did offer a caveat: That U.S.-Russia cooperation could help end the war.
Roots of the Conflict
While Mr. Crocker didn’t go so far as to say this could have all been prevented, he believes a better historical understanding could have led to more constructive U.S. engagement that might have mitigated the conflict.
The roots of this particular war go back to 1982, he said, when Assad’s father Hamza barraged the city of Hama with artillery in retaliation for Sunni-led attacks on government targets.
“He pretty much eliminated the Muslim brothers [an opposition group in Syria], but he also eliminated about 25,000 civilians, so that set the stage for the next three decades. Father and son perfected the security state,” said Mr. Crocker, who was ambassador to Syria when the younger Assad took power in 2000. “They knew that there might be payback, and they were ready for it, with multiple overlapping security agencies, a tremendous network of informers, so that when the cities came out, the government would be ready.”
The “Assad-must-go” policy of the Obama administration underestimated the lengths to which the Syrian leader would go to preserve his reign, Mr. Crocker said.
“Diplomacy 101 is that if you’re going to set a policy, be damn sure you have the means to carry it out, and that was a policy of hope, that Assad would go, but we had no way of making him go,” he said. “And you probably should be asking yourself, ‘Do we really want him to go, because who’s up next? Islamic State?’”
What happens now is anyone’s guess. Backed by Russian weaponry and Iran-sponsored Shia militias, the Assad regime still isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, Mr. Crocker said.
What can the U.S. do in the short term? Mr. Crocker says the task of President-elect Donald J. Trump will be to restore traditional alliances in a region where there are often no good policy choices, he said.
The problem is that Mr. Trump seems likely to continue the era of limited engagement introduced by U.S. President Barack Obama that in his view created a vacuum and gave rise to the “unprecedented turmoil” embroiling the region today, Mr. Crocker said.
Again, he returned to history: For 70 years since the second World War, the U.S. preserved the international order it had helped create, and the Middle Eastern power structure, through steady engagement backed by the credible threat of military force, for better or worse (times like the Iraq invasion, which Mr. Crocker acknowledged as “not our finest moment of liberal interventionism”).
President Obama upended that status quo, calling Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia “free riders” and challenging NATO members to pull their weight.
“The Obama doctrine is kind of about not having a doctrine, that the time for the U.S. being responsible for the world’s problems has ended, that he was elected to end wars, and others were going to have to pick up responsibilities,” Mr. Crocker said at the World Affairs event. “When I listen to some of the things the president says, I hear echoes of some of the things President-elect Trump has said.”
A no-fly zone would have been useful before the Russians got heavily involved, he said, noting that Mr. Obama enacted neither this nor other recommendations Mr. Crocker and another former Syria ambassador offered the president during a 90-minute lunch at the White House a few years back.
The lesson from this policy of “tactics but no strategy,” he believes, are clear: Either the U.S. leads or nobody does.
The one positive takeaway from his talk is that Middle Eastern allies are ready to work with Mr. Trump on issues ranging from the Iran-Saudi “Cold War” which is animating much of the conflict now in Syria, Iraq and Yemen — and on the defeat of Islamic State.
“When I’ve been out there, I actually felt that there was more fear of Trump in the states than there was in the Middle East,” he said, citing respect for U.S. checks and balances.
That was both revealing and reassuring that one more of Mr. Crocker’s history lessons was still valid: Sectarianism, while often seen as prescriptive for much of what’s taking place now, is more of a symptom than a cause. The real problem in the region is a lack of good governance, and how various groups exploit it for power.
“If you’re looking for one word to characterize, broadly speaking, what’s happening in the Middle East, it’s ‘governance,’ or more appropriately ‘misgovernance.’ There are a whole string of ‘-isms’ that have failed in the Middle East,” he said, rattling off to GSU students historical terms like colonialism, imperialism, Arab nationalism, socialism, and now, Islamism.
“That’s going to fail too, but before you take too much encouragement from that, there’s nothing out there that I can see that is going to reverse this 100-year-old tide and produce good governance,” he said.
Islamic state may be defeated, but that won’t end the region’s many simmering conflicts. The group will go under ground, and something else will emerge in its place, he said.
He alluded to another historical lesson: The U.S. armed the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets in the late 1970s, then left factions to fight one another until the Taliban emerged victorious, invited Al Qaeda in and laid the groundwork for 9/11. With so many players — Kurds, Turks, Russians, Syrians, Islamic State and more — converging on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, a similar fight for control could only be beginning.
Tim Lister, a CNN journalist, had just returned to Atlanta from reporting near the front lines of Mosul, Iraq, where tired and tattered Iraqi forces are working to take back the city from Islamic State. After that, the ultimate goal is to attack Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria.
“You have so many forces converging on Raqqa, it’s like trying to do a Rubik’s cube on mushrooms; it’s incredible,” he said on the World Affairs Council panel discussion.
Mr. Crocker knows his history, but the most important question — what happens in the near future — still seems to be the one no one can answer.