DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Former CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday it's worth a try for President Barack Obama to find a diplomatic solution for the showdown with Syria over chemical weapons, even with Russia taking the lead on setting in place a potential negotiated agreement.
Speaking in a question-and-answer session at Duke University, the former leader of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan said he's still skeptical about the success of the Russian plan that would put Syria's chemical weapons under international control for their subsequent dismantling in the middle of a civil war.
"It's worth a try. You certainly want to test the opposition," Petraeus said, but "this is a gargantuan task in the best of circumstances."
He cited a report about an unclassified estimate by the French government that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons includes more than 1,000 tons of "chemical agents and precursor chemicals," including sulfur mustard, VX and sarin gas. The former four-star general told the crowd Russia's offer came at the right time for Obama this week as congressional support for retaliatory U.S. missile strikes was diminishing and public support has been lukewarm at best.
"We have to recognize the absolute war-weariness of the American people, and that is a context that you have to operate" in, he told a Duke professor asking questions.
The president said he didn't need Congress to approve a resolution to counter a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last month the administration says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children, but asked for support anyway. Obama asked Congress on Tuesday — hours before his nationally televised address — to delay its votes.
"Everyone agrees that it would be very damaging for the United States for the president to have gone to Congress and not get the authority that he had requested," Petraeus said. The Russian offer, he added, "was a bit of a lifeline to the administration, so we'll see where that goes."
If that fails, he said, the United States could consider siding with the moderate opposition forces to the Assad government in the civil war. He said keeping the Assad family in power would be a victory for Hezbollah, an enemy of Israel. At the same time, other rebel groups could be willing to use chemical weapons, too, he added.
"If you change the dynamics on the battlefield, perhaps there's an opportunity for something that could be negotiated," he said.
Petraeus said U.S. authorities have failed to apprehend the perpetrators of the deadly attack exactly one year ago on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in part because the new Libyan government hasn't provided enough stability throughout the country. The local militias that helped overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi still have too much power in regions, he said.
Petraeus' short stint as director of the Central Intelligence Agency included Sept. 11, 2012, when al Qaeda-linked militants stormed the mission and a nearby building, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
On other topics, Petraeus said:
— National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden "has very much damaged our national security — make no mistake about it" by leaking classified documents but acknowledged the revelations about domestic surveillance will raise broader questions about the proper balance between civil liberties and security.
— the elimination of many key al Qaeda leaders has helped the war on terror by degrading the group's central core, but doesn't believe the conflict will end by traditional means. "There's no dagger through the heart," he said.
Petraeus resigned the CIA post last November while acknowledging an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell of Charlotte. Both he and Broadwell expressed regret for the pain the affair caused their respective spouses and families. The affair was not mentioned at Wednesday's event, which was sponsored by several Duke organizations and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.