Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

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My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said.

Crocker defended the two US military officers with whom he worked closely in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively – David Petraeus, who stepped down last week as CIA director, and Gen. John Allen, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Both are embroiled in a scandal over emails to women and in Petraeus’s case, a secret affair with his biographer.

“There are no two finer men who have worn the uniform” of the United States, Crocker said.

Crocker, who was serving in Lebanon in the 1980s when terrorists blew up the US embassy and a US Marine barracks, also defended the Obama administration against charges of negligence in protecting the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died on Sept. 11, 2012.

“He knew the risks,” Crocker said of Stevens. “He knew the importance of Benghazi.”

Noting that he had served in three countries where previous US ambassadors had been killed, Crocker said he hoped that the Benghazi tragedy would not lead the State Department to “retrench…We have to be prepared to go to difficult places… to influence [people] and affect their agenda,” Crocker said.

“Paris is a great place to change planes,” added Crocker, “to go to where it really counts.”

Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran. She tweets at @BarbaraSlavin1.

(Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker speaks to journalists during a news conference in Kabul September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Adek Berry/Pool.)