WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. should not allow inaction to dictate its Syria policy, David Petraeus, the disgraced former commander of the Iraq war, told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Petraeus, who was sentenced
this year to probation and a $100,000 fine for sharing classified information with his mistress, is often credited for his success in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, which the National Counterterrorism Center says is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In his first appearance before Congress since he resigned his post as the CIA director, Petraeus urged the Obama administration to increase military support to Iraqi security forces, Sunni tribal forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the fight against the Islamic State.
"What happens in the Middle East is not going to stay in the Middle East," Petraeus said, testifying before the Armed Services Committee.
The general warned that inaction can "carry profound risks and costs for our national security."
"We see that clearly today in Syria," Petraeus added.
In addition to suggesting that the United States embed advisers with Iraqi forces fighting ISIL, Petraeus advised possibly deploying joint air tactical controllers - with select Iraqi units - to help coordinate coalition airstrikes.
The U.S. should also examine whether its rules of engagement for precision strikes are too restrictive, Petraeus said.
Petraeus resigned from the CIA in 2012 after an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, became public.
He opened his testimony on Tuesday with an apology. "Four years ago I made a serious mistake, one that brought discredit on me and pain to those closest to me," Petraeus said, vowing "a greater sense of humility and purpose" moving forward.
The general's testimony comes amid growing criticism of the Obama administration's strategy in confronting ISIL. Pressure to change the course of U.S. Middle East policy has recently mounted with an increased Russian military presence in Syria, and a growing refugee crisis.
Petraeus recommended that the U.S. adopt a hard policy line on the use of barrel bombs by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which Petraeus believes is a main factor driving extremism in Syria.
The U.S. should make clear they must stop, he said. If they don't, "we will stop the Syrian air force from flying," he added. "We have that capability."
This would removed a "vicious weapon from Assad's arsenal" by showing Syrians that the U.S. is willing to stand against Assad, he said.
"It would show the Syrian people that we can do what the Islamic State cannot - provide them with a measure of protection," Petraeus testified.
Calling Syria a "geopolitical Chernobyl," Petraeus said the situation there is "spewing instability and extremism" through the region and the world.
"Like a nuclear disaster, the fallout from the meltdown of Syria threatens to be with us for decades," he cautioned.
Petraeus also argued for the creation of a safe enclave for civilians in Syria, which he said would be "hugely important" for addressing the refugee issue, but would require greater involvement of U.S. forces. Millions of Syrians have fled the ongoing violence recently, marking one of the biggest humanitarian crises since World War II.
Last week, Congress heard testimony
from Michael Bowers - the senior director of strategic response and global emergencies at Mercy Corps - who expressed "an abundance of caution" around the creation of a safe haven in Syria.
Neighboring countries might use the creation of a safe haven as an excuse to close their doors to refugees, Bowers told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Safe havens can also become a magnet for attacks on civilians unless they are cleared of combatant activity, and heavily protected by coalition forces, he added.
"Even if we called it a safe haven and somehow you cleared out the aerial zone around that, we would likely find more violence and more harm than we would gain," he said. "We haven't seen safe havens really work, quite frankly, in any other conflict zones around the world."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked Petraeus to address Bowers' concerns.
Petraeus noted that any established enclaves would require heavy military defense.
"You can't just declare something a safe zone and expect everyone to honor that," he said.
"The people on the ground will judge whether or not you're doing that and will vote with their feet, whether they're willing to stay", he added.
For Petraeus, defending a safe zone would not necessarily mean U.S. boots on the ground.
The general underscored the need to further train and support capable, moderate Sunni-Arab ground forces in the fight against Assad and ISIL - testimony that contradicted what the Senate heard last week from Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Austin testified that a $500 million effort to train more Syrian fighters resulted in only a handful of active fighters.
"We're talking four or five," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, raising questions about the effectiveness of that strategy.
Petraeus says, however, there are still Syrian forces the U.S. could train if it pledges to fully support them, and create a safe enclave where they could organize before pushing them out to engage ISIL.