Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker Says US Needs to Help Iraq Get 'Under Control' Before Addressing War in Syria

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Between 400 and 500 people killed in the month of May alone in Iraq. You may think that sounds like a headline from a 2006 edition of this program, but it's not. That's Iraq's reality right now. The spike in violence is raising fears of an all-out sectarian war in the country, barely a year and a half since the last US troops left Iraq. Veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker was the US ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009. He says the flames of sectarian conflict in Iraq are being stoked by, among other things, the violence in neighboring Syria.

Ryan Crocker: The vast majority of the attacks during the month of May, as I understand it, have been generated by al-Qaeda, the new alliance from hell between Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and because of the conflict in Syria and the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, they have a lot more capability than they used to.

Werman: So is this an indication that the violence in Syria is seriously affecting the stability in Iraq?

Crocker: I don't think there's any question about it, and it may not stop with Iraq. The Jordanians are having problems, the Turks are having problems. We have seen the spillover already into violence in Lebanon, both in the north in Tripoli and right in Beirut, where some rockets have gone into Hezbollah neighborhoods, so this has a very worrisome regional dimension.

Werman: You make it kind of sound, at least in Iraq, that it's quite an internal problem, with these effects coming over from Syria, but do you see a through line from the American occupation and what's happening now in Iraq? In other words, how much of the current violence in Iraq is America's fault?

Crocker: What I see is, again, al-Qaeda in Iraq playing a major role. Now, al-Qaeda in Iraq developed following the 2003 invasion, kind of spiked in its influence in the '06-'07 period, as you noted, but then diminished as Iraqis themselves turned against al-Qaeda and the coalition significantly damaged them. While they were never out of business completely, they were very badly weakened. The game changer, if you will, is the fight in Syria that has really empowered al-Qaeda there, and that in turn has strengthened al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Werman: Are you saying, though, that Iraq wasn't ready in 2011 for the US to leave?

Crocker: I'm not sure that military forces alone are capable of handling these kinds of terror attacks. It's more of an intelligence function. But that said, I certainly was a proponent for a continued although reduced presence, precisely to provide some of these capabilities, including special ops, to the Iraqis. Yes, I wish it had been possible to get that agreement in 2010 and have us still on the ground there.

Werman: Ambassador Crocker, you apparently had warned about what the US invasion of Iraq might do to the stability of the country and the region back in 2002. What is your reaction now to the violence that's taken place?

Crocker: Well, one of the points I made back then and have made subsequently with some colleagues, we were not trying to be predictive so much as we were just trying to send a warning that, you know, when you launch a military action to overthrow someone else's government, you set in motion forces that you cannot control or even predict. I had thought and hoped we were out of the woods on the dangerous sectarian violence after '07-'08, and now it's back. What we have to accept if we don't want to see Iraq devolve into a huge danger to the region through rampant instability, is we have to commit ourselves to a long term engagement. We've got an agreement that says we're strategic partners, we need to act on it, and that means doing what some really great diplomats are already doing, including our current ambassador and senior level officials from the State Department, but frankly I think we've got to take some plays out of the book from the time I was there, and use top level officials to get the attention of the Iraqis and work them through this. You know, when Secretary Kerry was in Iraq in April, that was the first visit by a secretary of state in four years. I think we're just going to have to pay more attention.

Werman: Given the violence in neighboring Syria, is there an opportunity now to address both conflicts at once, since they do seem to be interrelated?

Crocker: Well, let me just put it this way. I would certainly start with Iraq.

Werman: Iraq before Syria?

Crocker: Long before Syria, let's try to get that back under control, and then see what we've got. Because Syria is an entirely different dynamic, incredibly complicated, and we'll see what comes of this international conference proposed for next month, but I do not see a lot of good solutions or easy answers out there for Syria.

Werman: Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He's now a fellow at Yale University's Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy. Thanks very much, Ambassador.

Crocker: Thank you, Marco.