July 21st, 2013
06:41 AM ET

Former commander of US Central Command cautions against U.S. military involvement in Syria without an endgame

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum. which took place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance was a media sponsor of the event.

By CNN's Alison Harding

A former commander of U.S. Central Command said the United States needs to determine an endgame in Syria before it takes further military action in the beleaguered country.

In a panel moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, retired Gen. James Mattis told the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday that escalated involvement in Syria by the U.S. military would lead to “a full-throated, very, very serious war.”

When asked what if anything the U.S. should do to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Mattis said the United States must first consult with regional powers to determine a framework under which to operate before engaging militarily.

“Then we need to be very clear about our military end state and political end state. Otherwise you'll invade a country, pull down a statue, and say, 'Now what do we do?'” Mattis said.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to enter another military engagement, but announced in June that it would provide military support to start rebel fighters after it determined al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons - a red line that President Barack Obama warned the regime not to cross. The U.S. has also been urged by some to establish a no-fly zone over Syria.

But Mattis cautioned that setting up a no-fly zone would be a complicated and costly endeavor that is not a pragmatic military solution in a conflict where most of the violence is occurring on the ground.

“We have no moral obligation to do the impossible and harm our children’s future because we think we just have to do something,” Mattis said. “The killing will go on on the ground because they’re not using aircraft to do most of the killing.”

The retired general also said the administration’s plan to supply arms to the rebels is not without risk, as the weapons could get into the wrong hands. But that risk can be mitigated by thorough training, employing the secret services of surrounding countries and using U.S. special ops to monitor the situation.

“There's a way to do it, but it’s a commitment, not a donation,” Mattis said. “This is significant for a country that is once more going to find itself at odds in the midst of a very, very confusing situation on the ground in the Middle East.”

Syrian rebels have faced a series of tactical setbacks in recent weeks as al-Assad’s forces took back key strongholds - a development Mattis said was made possible by the support al-Assad receives from outside powers who have an interest in keeping him in power - particularly Iran.

“Bashar al-Assad has gotten the full support out of Tehran and out of Lebanese Hezbollah,” Mattis said.

“Absent that orchestrated support ... I think Assad would have found himself overrun by the gathering momentum against him,” Mattis said.

Mattis said if al-Assad falls, it would be the “biggest strategic setback in 25 years” for Iran, which counts Syria as one of its few remaining allies as the international community continues to impose harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran over its highly secretive uranium-enrichment program.

When asked how close the country is to a nuclear weapon, Mattis predicted they could have one within a year if they choose to.

“I don't believe (Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has made the decision. If he does, I am not completely confident that we would know immediately. I don't think we'd know right away,” Mattis said.

He offered reserved optimism that Iran’s newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, could help his country walk back the nuclear weapons program, but predicted the new leader would not get much support in the current political climate in Tehran. Mattis said nonetheless, the United States should try to work with the new leader, but should do so with “modest expectations.”

One thing Mattis said he knows for certain is that should Iran get a nuclear weapon, Israel would launch an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But he cautioned that even with potential assistance from the U.S., it would be nearly impossible to destroy Iran’s massive setup.

Mattis said ultimately, the only real resolution to Iran’s nuclear program will be a diplomatic one.

“The military can buy our diplomats some time, but it cannot solve this problem,” Mattis said.

Throughout his talk, Mattis championed the role diplomacy plays in military engagements throughout the world, saying “not a week went by, not a day went by when I didn’t talk to the 20-odd ambassadors in my region.”

Mattis said he often lobbied the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to increase funding of diplomatic efforts, saying he would tell them, “if you don’t vote more money for the foreign relations budgets to help our ambassadors to reach out and make an impact, please vote more money for ammunition because I’m going to need it.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Blitzer also asked Mattis if the war in Iraq was worth it, given the tremendous American sacrifice over the past 10 years and the Iraqi government's reluctance to do more to stop Iranian weapons shipments to Syria over Iraqi airspace.

"If Iraq, sitting in the geo-strategic center of the Middle East, continues to mature in a democratic way, then I would say yes," he said.

–CNN's Shirley Henry contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Gen. Mattis • Syria
soundoff (231 Responses)
  1. suryarao mudragada

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    Surya Rao Mudragada.

    March 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  2. Portland tony

    This dialog reminds me of a lyrics that referred to one of our previous wars. The US has no business getting involved in a sectarian war. Up until recently all persons of differing religions beliefs were allowed to co-exist in Syria. Although not a perfect society, it damned well was better than one the Sunni/Jihadist envision.

    "And it's one, two, three,
    What are we fighting for ?
    Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
    Next stop is the Mediterranean Sea (Syria)
    And it's five, six, seven,
    Open up the pearly gates,
    Well there ain't no time to wonder why
    Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

    Come on mothers throughout the land,
    Pack your boys off to The Middle East
    Come on fathers, and don't hesitate
    To send your sons off before it's too late.
    And you can be the first ones in your block
    To have your boy come home in a box" with apologies to "Country Joe and the fish"

    July 22, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  3. sonny chapman

    Conservative "Patriots" might want to listen to this Military Man's advice; that's what they kept saying when our Civilian Govt. folks wanted to cut our losses in Iraq & Afghanistan.

    July 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  4. FidyCents

    Come on General chemical weapons are being used in Syria. You've been part of that story once before or did you forget that already in retirement?

    July 22, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  5. George patton

    Without an endgame, you say? Of course the right-wingers in Washington have an endgame for Syria and that endgame is is to first beat and oust Bashar al-Assad and then eliminate the Islam Militants once they are no longer needed in their obnoxious endeavor. The endgame is nothing short of conquering Syria itself for Washington to gain almost complete control of the Middle East!!! The British did the same 100 or more years ago.

    July 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Reply
    • mojacar

      assad is the only choice

      July 22, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Yes, the British were successful colonizers who built Hong Kong and India into functioning countries. The US has never succeeded at this, and never will.
      GWB invaded Iraq, with no "end game plan". He was delighted in his "Shock and Awe", he saw Sadaam's statue toppled, he eventually chased down Sadaam and eliminated him (when he should have been chasing Bin Laden). Now what? The whole system of government and local police were eliminated, leaving the population free to ransack state property at will. No rule of law established, just let the people "do their own thing", like planting IED's for our soldiers.
      Gee wiz guys, what do we do now? I got it! Let's hold "democratic elections"! This should fix the problem.
      My point is: If you invade and conquer a country, you must take responsibility for establishing order. This process takes decades. Turning over a country to itself prematurely is always a disaster. What did Iraqis know about "democracy and freedom"? NOTHING. Same with Afghanistan, Libya, and now Egypt. Simply toppling dictators solves nothing, there must be some order established before holding elections and expecting grand results!

      July 23, 2013 at 7:05 am | Reply
      • StanCalif

        Had we followed the British example of colonization, Iraq would be in much better condition today. The US would be better off as well! The British would install a British Governor to establish order and extract resources to pay for their conquest. Hey, Cheney could have gotten his oil! Instead, we (without a plan) decided that Iraq should govern itself, with no experience what so ever. Iraq's oil was sold to China (who lost not one soul in their liberation). Great plan!

        July 23, 2013 at 7:26 am |
      • George patton

        Just what makes you think that Iraq is governing itself, Stan? Actually, Iraq is a U.S. backed pseudo-democracy headed by Noor Malaki. We control Iraq today very much like the Russians did Poland and neighboring countries of Eastern Europe after WW2.

        July 23, 2013 at 10:52 am |
      • StanCalif

        George patton:
        I did not say Iraq is ruling itself, at least not as a "freely elected democratic" government. Why do you think they are on the verge of a civil war (same with Egypt). Those "in power" are busy making friends with Iran (another democratically elected government!). We, the US, have no troops in Iraq today because they kicked us out! Our new democratically elected "friends"!
        GWB and his "handler" Dick Cheney, miscalculated badly!!! Cheney wanted oil, at any cost, GWB was just a stooge! If Saddam where still in power today, Iran would be a non-issue! Saddam was not a "nice guy", like most dictators he had his serious faults. But he hated Iran! Our most beloved friend, Israel, would not be threatened by Iran today if the "evil" Saddam still ruled Iraq. Iraq would not have been destroyed and would have a functioning economy today.
        Just what did "we" accomplish??? NOTHING! Our citizens died by the thousands, our own economy ruined by all the outlandish spending to "free Iraq"! Result, we won Iraq for Iran, they didn't have to risk one life. China got the oil, again without one soul killed or maimed!
        I feel very sorry for all our citizens who fought and died for GWB's imagination. He was wrong, plain and simple. No WMD's ever found, though he went so far as to send Colin Powell to the UN to tell his lies. Cheney got no oil, after telling us the war in Iraq would be "revenue neutral" with oil money flowing into the US.
        You think Iraq is a stooge of the US today? Far, far from it. We "liberated" Iraq to the very serious detriment of US interests and the expectations of the "liberated" Iraqi's. War LOST! I repeat, LOST!

        July 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • StanCalif

      Washington has NO IDEA how to take over a country!!! GWB invaded Iraq, with no "end game plan", all he had was Dick Cheney's lust for oil! Iraqi oil will pay for this, so said Dick! Surprise! China got the oil! Iran got the alliance of the "newly elected free and democratic" government of Iraq! Our troops were kicked out. Now Iraq is on the verge of a civil war! Wonder why? We, the US, need to stay out of middle eastern countries "problems". Just let the go ahead and kill each other instead of killing our brave citizens who volunteered to "serve our country"! Their dedicated service has been in vain. Now what do we do for all these veterans who are maimed for life? Just say "thank you and good luck"? I am very saddened by this whole Iraqi venture. Afghanistan is no better. Syria? Right, just jump right in and repeat the same mistakes. Egypt, another complete failure! I served during Viet Nam, and I am ashamed to have been some small part of this. My service, and all others, accomplished nothing!

      July 24, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  6. saeed

    that’s funny intervein an attack on Syria will trigger an attack from Iran that means a war against an 80 million strong country Israel will get removed and all the Jews killed if USA wants a fight then just pick 1 and face the consequences.

    July 21, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • JC

      That didn't work out so well for Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Israel isn't exactly a defenseless country and Iran isn't exactly a military power house, photoshopping military tech demos, etc. Iran talks a big game, Israel actually get on the field and plays one.

      July 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Reply
      • TY

        Your a bit off the mark. Iran 1.2 to 1.3 million and Israel 780,000. Because of the quality of leadership this is even conventionally. Mechanized warfare Iran would be okay for the first 2 days after that no that is because of no lateral thinking on lower commanders. Don't count Iran's military lightly. The biggest problem will be resupply and that I think will be their Achilles heal.

        July 22, 2013 at 6:57 am |
  7. Big T

    .....LISTEN TO THIS LEADER OF MEN..............you McCainites

    July 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  8. SolarMoon

    Another dysfunctional remnant of the British Empire. Everywhere there are traces of it in the Middle East one will find nothing but conflict and power struggles.

    July 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  9. Tom1940

    Imagine if you will, either in France or England, during the U.S. Civil War, as both sides fought to prevail, that Military Commanders were engaged in "warning" their leaders that to enter the U.S. Civil war by England or France would lead to "unforeseen and dire" consequences! Unthought of at the time as it was considered a "sovereign" and "internal" matter to be resolved by the people of the U.S. – no one else. Certainly there were was profiteering and commerce with both sides in the U.S. Civil War, by merchants and others of France and England – however those countries left the internal fighting to the U.S. Sad as it is to see the casualties mounting – it is a situation we (U.S), should stay out of and hope to help pick up the pieces when the fighting is done.

    July 21, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • USMC1369

      The main reason France didn't intervene in our civil war Tom, was the fact that the South didn't want foreign intervention due to their national pride. Otherwise had France intervened, the South would have won and thus making the Monroe Doctrine unenforceable so the French could continue with their occupation of Mexico. Maybe it would have been better all the way around had the South won and maybe we wouldn't be dominated by the all powerful M.I.C. in Washington D.C.!

      July 21, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
      • Byzant

        Completely incorrect. Confederate diplomats were in London and Paris before the war even began, attempting to bring the European powers in. Britain couldn't muster the support to intervene on the side of slaveholders, and France couldn't fight the US Navy without Britain. When the US attacked the British ship HMS Trent in 1862, the Brits nearly got involved, but it was resolved diplomatically, and with the loss at Antietam and the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, hopes of European aid for the South faded away.

        July 21, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      Applying a strategy now for facts on the ground 150 years ago ain't real smart. But it does fit the world that exists between your ears.

      July 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  10. ccsroscoe@gmail.com

    I vote t let them kill each other.

    July 21, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply
  11. Nikan

    Syria has always been a secular state, where Muslims of all sects, Christians, Druze and other minority religious groups lived peacefully, as neighbors. This is unprecedented in other parts of the Middle East, including Qatar.

    You tell me how these Islamist fighters fit into a future secular Syria. Mind
    you, many of these fighters, the vast majority, are not even Syrian.
    Most of these groups operate under the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)
    banner in hopes of getting a piece of the aid pie. But they all operate
    independently, and there is no command and control in the FSA. The
    Islamists are in the majority. We know for a fact that Al-Qaeda AND the Taliban are fighting with the rebels as well. Any arms we send will end up in the hands of Islamists. Screw what John Warmonger McFonda rambles about - the man is OUT OF HIS MIND and has no problem being photographed with KNOWN TERRORISTS!

    In Aleppo, for example, the Islamists disarmed the smaller rebel actions fighting the government. They are all birds of the same feather. There is no such thing as "moderate" rebels! Here are some statistics. This information can easily be found through independent research. Even a simple Google search. For those who are lazy, you can Wikipedia each group and track citations that way.

    1. Syrian Islamic Front
    Est. nos. – 25,000 – extremist salafist militia
    Leader: Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi

    2. The Syrian Islamic Liberation front – Loosely knit Islamist alliance.
    Est. nos. – 37,000
    Leader: Ahmed Eissa al-sheikh

    3. Farouk Battalions – moderate islamist
    Est nos – 14,000
    Leader: Osama Juneidi

    4. Jabhat al-Nusra and The Islamic State Of Iraq – Both are al-Queda affiliates.
    Est nos. – 6,000 – 7,000
    Leader: Abu Mohammed al-Golani

    5. Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement – Extreme salafists
    Est nos. – 10,000
    Leader: Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi

    6. Syrian Martyrs Brigade – Salafists
    Est nos. – 8,000
    Leader: Jamaal Maarouf

    7. Islam Brigade – Extreme salafists
    Est nos.- Low thousands
    leader: Zahran Alloush

    8. Tawid Brigade – Moderate Islamist.
    Est nos. – 12,000
    Leader: Abdel Aziz Salama

    9. Suquor al-sham Brigades – Moderate Islamist
    Est nos: Several thousand
    leader: Achmed Eissa al-Sheikh

    I vote to keep President Assad in power. He is no angel, but he is the lesser of the evils!

    July 21, 2013 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • sonny chapman

      Anyone with as much of his own peoples blood on his hands as Assad has lost all legitimacy to rule in this Modern World; tribalism & "devil we know " be damned.

      July 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Reply
      • Portland tony

        Rather naive comment, after the losses the Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, the US and their allies have suffered in dead and injured during our last Military operations,

        July 22, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Jeff

      Keep Assad in power ?! After he killed 100,000 people, including women and children, used chemical weapons and is allied with hezbollah and Iranian ayatollahs ?

      July 23, 2013 at 6:48 am | Reply
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