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Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker has ‘no confidence’ in Syria withdrawal strategy

Former Ambassador to the Middle East Ryan Crocker speaks at a forum on the Middle East at the Jepson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus in December. Interviews conducted with Crocker as part of the Lessons Learned project formed the foundation of an extensive and damning report on the war in Afghanistan published recently in the Washington Post. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane native and Princeton University Diplomat in Residence Ryan Crocker spoke at Gonzaga University on Sept. 19 about the perils of the United States not learning from its history. On Wednesday, Crocker said President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, abandoning commitments to the Kurds, is an example of our failure to learn from the past.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out over the long run, no one can, just now,” Crocker said. “But things like this have not worked for us in the past, and I have no confidence they will work for us now.”

Crocker was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1998 to 2001, but he said his experience in Lebanon as political counselor from 1981 to 1984 was a closer parallel to current events. The end result of the U.S. decision to withdraw from Lebanon ended “very, very badly,” Crocker said.

Crocker said perhaps the most chilling effect Trump’s Syria decision could have on our country is the message it sends to the rest of the world.

“It is not the custom of the United States to abandon allies,” Crocker said. “The Kurds stood up with us. They fought hard. They took significant losses. They were in the front, not us, and we repaid them by withdrawing on virtually no notice, so that has repercussions around the world.”

Crocker said this example is injurious to our national security, which has always been cemented through our alliances.

“Countries everywhere are going to look at each other and say, ‘Uh-oh, it looks like we can’t count on America anymore,’ ” he said.

There is a stark difference in the Syria and Lebanon situations, Crocker said. We were essentially defeated in Lebanon, he said, but this was nowhere near the case in Syria. He called the action “a withdrawal without a purpose.”

“President Trump seems to be set on pulling us out of the Middle East and pulling our forces out of the Middle East whether they are engaged in combat or not,” Crocker said. “What will happen, we will give the space to others who are more patient and more determined.”

On April 19, 1983, the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed, and there were 17 American fatalities. This incident is the worst loss of U.S. diplomatic lives; Crocker lost close friends and colleagues.

“I am a survivor of that bombing,” Crocker said. “Six months later, Marine barracks were blown up in Beirut.”

On Oct. 23, 1983, a Lebanese man drove a truck with explosives into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and 241 U.S. military personnel died. This did not happen in a vacuum, Crocker said. When the U.S. withdrew from Lebanon, he said it allowed Israel to invade, with the purpose of attacking the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“We are now using the same pattern in Syria,” Crocker said. “We’re not going to be involved, but we are green-lighting another country’s invasion. We have no control over the outcomes, just as we had no control over the outcomes in Lebanon.”

Turkey’s immediate invasion of Syria was predictable, considering that the country views the YPG – the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party – to be terrorists. The U.S. also recognized them as such, but Crocker said our partnership was an example of how there are bad choices – and worse choices – in the Middle East.

In addition to Syria and Lebanon, Crocker has served as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Kuwait. He served as ambassador in Lebanon in 1992 and ’93.

Trump committed to a presence in Syria a few weeks into his presidency, and allied with the Kurds to defeat the Islamic State.

“He wanted it quick, and there was no other force in the area that was armed, trained and organized that could fight with us,” Crocker said.

Crocker noted that some U.S. Special Forces were working with the Kurds prior to Trump’s decision.

“With the arrival of President Trump, that became policy,” Crocker said. “The Kurds would be our partners in the offensive against Islamic State, and the scale of that cooperation increased substantially.”

The soldiers’ role there was mainly advisement, special operations, military training and weapon supply, Crocker said. Eight Americans have died since the U.S. established this relationship. Since the U.S. withdrawal, ISIS militants who were in Kurdish custody are escaping.

“It looks like some very bad guys are on the loose again,” Crocker said. “The second point, which is medium- to long-term, this invasion reintroduces chaos throughout northern Syria, and Islamic State thrives on chaos.”

The threats by Trump against Turkey also could backfire, Crocker said. Turkey is an important member of NATO, and serious threats to Turkey’s economy, coupled with an already tenuous relationship with the U.S. could cause President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to question their membership.

“We do not need these kinds of issues with NATO allies,” Crocker said. “The president’s decision has produced something that is not only a betrayal of those who fought with us – the Kurds – it will make a very important and very troubled relationship with Turkey that much worse.”

In a letter revealed Wednesday, Trump warned Erdogan that history would remember him as “the devil” should he invade northern Syria, the Associated Press reported.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote.

Crocker said quite a few statements coming out of the White House have struck him as odd, such as the statement that the Kurds did not come to our assistance in World War II.

“I have no idea what that means,” Crocker said. “The Kurds were in no position to come to anyone’s assistance, even their own. They were not an independent state, they still aren’t. It’s imaginary, a delusion, and frankly, just as an American citizen, I find it frightening.”

Crocker said Russia also comes into play in this conflict, since during the years of the Soviet Union, the country was a key player in the Middle East, and Syria was an important ally.

“Under Putin we are seeing the reassertion of Russian global aspirations, to be a global power again, which has not been the case since the Soviet Union collapsed,” Crocker said. “By giving up our presence, effectively allowing Turkish invasion, we hand the Russians yet another opportunity to assert leadership and to affect decisions on a critical part of the world.”

Crocker said the Russians will take advantage of the latitude Trump has given the country and assert their presence and power wherever they can. He said the country’s main barrier is that efforts like this are costly, and the Russian economy is in trouble.

“Their own lack of assets may limit them,” Crocker said. “Certainly nothing we are doing is going to limit them.”

Though Crocker believes the decision to withdraw was incorrect, he also said we cannot “rewind the film or turn back the clock.”

“As things go badly wrong, and they will, we should not give in to the instinctive reaction to send back our forces to make it all better,” Crocker said. “We have now given up that alternative. Had we stayed, we could be shaping events. I think had we stayed, we would not be watching this Turkish invasion.”