In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor about developments in Syria and Iraq, Ryan Crocker, one of America’s most distinguished diplomats, said that it is a “good time for discussion” between the US and Iran about Syria.
Crocker, who held talks with Iranian officials while serving as US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said, “I would like to see us or others try to engage the Iranians now on Syria because Syria is their only ally.”
“Hezbollah is being very cautious,” Crocker observed about the Shiite Islamic militant group based in Lebanon, adding that “they are being cautious in large part because of guidance from the Iranians to be cautious."
Crocker, who was US ambassador to Syria from 1998 to 2001, warned against getting too deeply involved with the Syrian opposition at this stage “because you could find yourself decisively committed to the outcome that is most injurious to our interests. We simply, as far as I can tell, don’t know enough right now.”
While concerned about heightened tensions in Kirkuk, a flashpoint between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, and “significant regional pressures,” Crocker is “pretty optimistic” about Iraq’s future. He advised the Obama administration to focus on the US-Iraq strategic partnership and “treat Iraq like an ally.”
Ryan Crocker holds the rank of career ambassador in the US Foreign Service and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition to Iraq and Syria, he served as US ambassador to Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Excerpts of his interview with Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti follow:
On US policy toward Syria:
Crocker: It starts with something very basic, which is just information and analysis. You can look at any number of revolutions that did not exactly wind up where we thought they were going to go. Like the French revolution, like the Iranian revolution, you know, we thought we knew and could manage a relationship with post-revolutionary Iran after February ‘79. We were wrong because we couldn’t see the currents behind the currents. So we can’t afford that mistake in Syria.
You know being cautious doesn’t mean being inactive. It means doing what Secretary Clinton did, which is drive the Qatar conference. I think we all could have wished for a better outcome but you know it isn’t ours to make. You’ve got to have people on the ground. Maybe Americans, maybe not, who are engaged with these groups and leaders, assessing, measuring, shaping who are they with, who are they against. Who is against them, what are their external ties, what’s their strengths, what’s looming, before you decisively commit. Because you could find yourself decisively committed to the outcome that is most injurious to our interests. We simply, as far as I can tell, don’t know enough right now. Not because we are lazy or dumb. It’s hard to do.
And this is where our regional allies play such a critical role. Stepping up strategic consultations with the Turks, with the Jordanians, with the Israelis. Discretely and circumspectly with the Lebanese and with the Iraqis, um as well as with the Gulf. They’re closer to it.
On Regional Diplomatic Efforts on Syria:
Crocker: Well, the regional states are going to launch initiatives and make efforts whether we are involved or not. It’s always better [for the US] to be involved, conveying the sense of partnership, of shared concern, of shared goals, and shaping approaches. I think the question of Iran is very intriguing. I would like to see us or others try to engage the Iranians now on Syria because Syria is their only ally. Syria stood by them in the Iraq war. Syria and Iran created Hezbollah in the wake of the Israeli invasion of 1982. Well maybe that isn’t such an attractive strategic proposition for Iran any more. Maybe unqualified backing for the Assad regime as they look through their long-term interests in the region isn’t their best choice. I don’t know how they think, but it would be worthwhile talking to those who have better insight into Iranian strategic planning and then sending our own signals.
I mean, the Obama administration made it clear beginning of ’09, we’re ready to talk. This would be a great time to say, “hey we’re ready to talk, let’s do it,” and just see if we can find perhaps some of the common ground we found in Afghanistan in 2001. You know Hezbollah is being very cautious. They are being cautious in large part because of guidance from the Iranians to be cautious, which would suggest that the Iranians aren’t sure how this is going to play out or exactly how they would best be positioned. Good time for discussion.
On Iran’s Role in Iraq:
Crocker: Well, again we have made clear that we are ready to talk to the Iranians about Iraq. When I was there in the 2007-2009 period we had several face to face discussions between my Iranian counterpart and me. We didn’t get anywhere. I think there was no interest on the part of the [Iranian] policy makers, which in the case of Iraq really was Qassem Sulaimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, coming to any accommodation. I do think the effort was useful because it demonstrated to Nouri al Maliki [Iraqi Prime Minister] that you’re not going to get a negotiated deal that gets Jaysh al-Mahdi and Iranian supported militias off the back of the government. And that led quasi-directly to this decision in April ’08 to take them on militarily and defeat them.
Also, just an interesting little insight for Americans who understand these things so inadequately, they [the Iraqis] may all be Shia but the divisions between Arab Iraq and Persian Iran are profound. Jaysh al Mahdi was Maliki’s enemy and his view in ’08 was “it’s them or it’s me. Either I win or they do.” What you’re seeing now, is Jaysh al Mahdi vastly reduced. Still some elements of Asa’ib Ahl’ al-Haq and some few other lethal groups, but it’s a political effort, re-weaving ties between Tehran, Esfahan and the Sadrists.
But also trying to take what advantage might be there in the Syrian situation. Iraqis are scared to death with what’s going on in Syria — the notion of a radical Sunni Islamist ascendancy that almost tore the country [Iraq] completely apart in 2006-07, and showing some muscles inside Iraq now. Were that to continue; not a good thing if you’re an Iraqi. Tensions between Turkey and Iraq, partly over Syria, partly over Turkey’s relations with the Kurds in Iraq all combine, I think, to push Iraqis close to the Iranians, but not because they want to be there and not because they are going to stay there.
But it is a hugely complex situation and if we would like to see the Iraqis in a different place we’ve got to make sure that we are talking strategically to them not just telling them, we want you to take a tougher line to bring down the Bashar regime. What are your concerns, what are your fears, what are your predictions? How do we deal with this as a common problem? I mean, we are strategic partners. We’ve got an agreement that says so. You know we need to put some meat into it, and this is a good subject. And that can get into the issue of Iran. Iraqis may not like the Iranians, but they know them pretty well. So what do the Iraqis think it would take for a shift in the Iranian strategic thinking?
First, where do the Iraqis think the Iranians are in their strategic thinking. They’re going to know better than we are. But we’re so much better at telling people what the right answers are and the right course of action is than we are in asking them to assess a situation they’re much closer to and how they think we should proceed. You know that gets us into trouble.
On the Kurdistan Region of Iraq:
Crocker: Well, as you know you were an early pioneer of the US visits to Kurdish Iraq. It hasn’t gotten less complicated since the first time you were there. It is both opportunities and challenges as you describe. And then of course the whole intra-Kurdish dynamic, KDP-PUK relations and tensions.
Qubad Talabani [former Kurdistan regional government representative in the US and son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani] is now back, perhaps … part of an effort to ensure that the Talabanis maintain sway in the PUK power base.
They [the Kurdish groups] all have their relationships with the Turks, with all elements of the Syrian equation, and with the Iranians, as well as with Baghdad.
I think it’s a critical time for the Kurds, first to have some unity of a vision and purpose among Kurdish factions within Iraq. Hang together or hang separately, because the threats are great. Figure out how they want to manage their relations with Ankara, which are important, but also with Baghdad.
They cannot afford to be on terms of complete enmity with the Baghdad regime. Historically this has not worked for them. And not just under Saddam. It didn’t work for them under Abd al-Karim Qasim, it didn’t work for them under the monarchy.
So they better be darn careful, in my view, that they keep their lines open to Baghdad that they stay attuned with thinking in Baghdad and where strategic red lines are with the Iraqi regime.
I hope all that is going on. I think figures like [former Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister] Barham Salih, who doesn’t have an independent power base but understands Baghdad as well as he understands Erbil, can be a voice, someone to listen to.
Fouad Hussein [chief of staff to Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani], certainly on the KDP side. [KRG Prime Minister ] Nechirvan Barzani likewise . So you know they’ve got the human talent, they’ve just got to be sure they are asking the right questions.
Crocker: Well, the good news is we, the US, as a military presence have been out of Iraq since 2010. The conventional wisdom was when we left the Green Line was just simply going to go to hell, but it didn’t. That said, Kirkuk does remain a very dangerous and unresolved situation. Same issues that were there after ’03 are there almost a decade later. When is there going to be a vote, when is there going to be a referendum? Under what terms will such a referendum be held? They remain unresolved. And my own view is, this is the worst of all possible times to try to press for definitive solutions in Kirkuk for precisely the reasons we have been discussing.
The Kurdish region exists inextricably as part of a region that has never been more volatile than it is right now. Not the context in which you want to try to come to again ultimate answers to cosmic questions. But I give the same advice as I did. I spent an awful lot of time telling Barzani and Talabani and Maliki, go sit under a tree until the feeling for murderous violence passes because it ain’t gonna help.
Maliki also has to show some restraint here and he’s got legitimate grievances against the KRG, not least on hydrocarbons, as the KRG does against the federal government. But pushing this into a confrontation in Kirkuk is not going to work for anyone except those who would like to see a return to chaos in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda would love ... to exploit it. So I would recommend two thing that have worked in the past first for national leaders, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish, to listen to local leaders in Kirkuk. They gotta live there and have always found ways, not without acrimony, but they have always found ways to accommodate each other that have resolved situations short of widespread violence. They can do it again.
The Kurds can’t press for political outcomes that the Arabs are not going to accept, and Maliki can’t try and force this by a show of arms. We had the trilateral process, it became a bilateral process and it worked. That, all along the Green Line, coordination between KRG and Iraqi military commanders to say you got guys where they shouldn’t be and let me check into that. And yeah you’re right they couldn’t read a map. That has to continue.
But again, it is a time for great caution and prudence, a long view, the history of the region sadly is the history of the quick grab. This is not the moment for the quick grab from hindsight.
On Prospects for an Iraqi Hydrocarbon Law:
Crocker: Well, I believe back in you know mid ’07 when we made our first sustained push for the hydrocarbon law that we wouldn’t get it. You’re not going to get a comprehensive hydrocarbon law before you get a comprehensive political understanding. You know the second has to precede the first. And I think events have pretty well born that out. There have got to be more fundamental understandings than currently exist.
What the nature of the Iraq state truly is. What is the Federal Republic of Iraq? And particularly, what is it in a Kurdish context?
Without definitive answers to those questions I don’t think you’re going to see a hydrocarbon law. But I also don’t see it as a disaster. As long as they can continue to agree on a budgetary arrangement as they have, this will roll along in a reasonably smooth fashion. I think it gets dangerous if you move to the point where there are major direct exports from the Kurdish region through Turkey. But that’s dangerous for the Turks, and I think as they face the range of challenges that they do internally vis-à-vis Syria, they are going to be a little careful, too. So you may get agreements in principle. I’m not sure you’re going to see a big pipeline rolling through anytime soon.
On Prime Minister Maliki and Iraqiya:
Crocker: Well, there is enormous talent within Iraqiya, but it has always been less than the sum of its parts. There has been an absence of cohesion of common purpose, of discipline, if you will, that has badly hurt Iraqiya as a force in Iraqi politics They are batting significantly below their weight. I’d like to see that change. I was hopeful close to the time of my departure in 2009, when Iraqiya did quite well in provincial elections, I thought they were turning the corner. It’s not that I favor them over Dawa at all. I just think that all of Iraq benefits from more than one strong cohesive party.
So we’ll have to see how they continue to evolve.
Prime Minister Maliki coming out of Dawa, a tightly disciplined organization, had to be that way to survive under the Saddam years — very cohesive. You know Iraqiya just doesn’t match that. And you know I know a lot of senior members of Iraqiya, I’m impressed with their nationalism their vision for their country. They’re patriots. What they’ve got to do is political party organization 101. And you know we learn from our own history how hard that can be with Federalists and republicans that became democrats, this isn’t easy. But it’s a great question because I think a more cohesive, more focused Al-Iraqiya could make a significant positive difference in the development of politics in the country.
On US Policy Toward Iraq:
Crocker: Look I continue to be, despite the challenges they are facing, I continue to be pretty optimistic about Iraq. Everyone predicted total disaster and catastrophe if US forces left ... Iraq is facing significant regional pressures. It will ride through those. What I think is the most significant thing to focus on is just Iraq, we have a strategic partnership to focus on, let’s use it. Let’s sit down and say where do we want to go with this and it won’t be primarily the security ... How can we help develop education … how can we expand our Fulbright program, are you willing to put more money into the Fulbright program … Demonstrate that framework of a strategic partnership … Give more of a sense that we are in it for the long haul … so that’s what I would urge the second Obama administration to really pay attention to … to treat Iraq like an ally.