Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Aspen Security Forum Part III – Syria

Aspen Institute

Aspen Institute

I spent four of the most intense professional years of my life serving on the Naval Forces Central Command Staff, so I really looked forward to hearing what General James Mattis USMC (Retired), who up until a few weeks ago was the Commander, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), had to say on the last day of the forum.  CENTCOM’s area of responsibility includes a lot of current hot spots such as Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.  The session was moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

One of the first things General Mattis said that struck a chord with me was his reply to a question by Blitzer concerning the Iraq war: Was it worth it? He replied:  “If Iraq sitting at the geostrategic center of the Middle East continues to mature in a democratic way then I would say yes, but there’s a big ‘if.’”

What I found of most interest was the points he made after that statement:

“If you ask the troops coming home from World War II…we went to free Europe…did you really intend to in 1948 see half of Europe enslaved by the Soviet Union they’d say that’s not what I fought for.  When you’re dealing with warfare you’re dealing with a fundamentally unpredictable phenomenon.  Its all the more important to get your goals straight at the outset so you know what you want to do.”

Blitzer then went on to ask him about Syria.  General Mattis made the following points:

  • We’re going to have to determine the end state we want.
  • Bottom line, this war needs to be ended as rapidly as possible.
  • If Americans go in and take leadership and ownership, it will be a very serious war.
  • If anyone says it’s going to be easy and we can do a no fly zone and it will be cheap, he would discount that at the outset.
  • We need some sort of international imprint. Whether it’s Arab League or GCC, we need the region to provide some sort of framework with which we’d operate.
  • We need to be very clear about our military end state contributing to the political end state.
  • If you’re not, you’re liable to invade a country, pull down a statue, and say now what do we do?

In response to question from Blitzer about difficulty of establishing a no fly zone over Syria the General made the following points:

  • Fall back to the political end state.  Why do you want to establish a no fly zone?
  • Is it because they’re using aircraft to kill most of the people on the ground?  No they’re not, they’re using artillery, machine guns, mortars and snipers.
  • Let’s have a reason for what we’re going to do.
  • We all want to do something to stop this but the desire to do something does not take the place of pragmatic what is possible.
  • We have no moral obligation to do the impossible.
  • In order to do a no fly zone we have to say it will have an effect that American people want.
  • Next we have to show its going to be militarily possible.  He guarantees that if ordered to do it Centcom can do a military no fly zone.
  • It will be very expensive, it will have tankers, it will have fighters and airplanes up constantly, it will drain the treasury, and it will take hard pressed military into one more fray.
  • It will require helicopters and Special Forces to recover the pilots who get shot down.
  • Can we do it? Yes, but the killing will continue on the ground because they’re not using aircraft to do most of the killing.
  • In response to a question from Blitzer about willingness to send young people into harm’s way, Mattis stated he’s reluctant to do so, but he knows some things are worth fighting for. If told to do so the U.S. military will stand obedient and will give 100 percent. They will give the enemy the longest day and worst day if ordered to do so.
  • But we should not fight wars without a clearly defined end state that been presented to the American public, and they say that’s what they want their sons and daughters to do.

General Mattis went on to talk about the price of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without reserves.  I took that to mean without the capability to add additional forces as needed if something goes wrong.   Here are some points he made on that topic:

  • There are approximately 40,000 police in New York City.  The surge into Afghanistan was 30,000 troops into a country the size of Texas.
  • When you go to war, it cannot be a half step.  If you go, it should be compelling from day one.

Earlier this week, a letter from General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was made public.  The topic was options for potential use of U.S. military forces in the Syrian conflict.  It was written after the general had some “spirited” discussions on the topic during Dempsey’s confirmation hearing for a follow on tour as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Dempsey laid out the following options.  The text is taken from the letter:

Train, Advise, and Assist the Opposition.

This option uses nonlethal forces to train and advise the opposition on tasks ranging from weapons employment to tactical planning. Wecould also offer assistance in the form of intelligence and logistics.

Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes.

This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes.

Establish a No-Fly Zone.

This option uses lethal force to prevent the regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply. It would extend air superiority over Syria by neutralizing the regime’s advanced, defense integrated air defense system. It would also shoot down adversary aircraft and strike airfields, aircraft on the ground, and supporting infrastructure.  We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications.

Establish Buffer Zones.

This option uses lethal and nonlethal force to protect specific geographic areas, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan. The opposition could use these zones to organize and train. They could also serve as safe areas for the distribution of humanitarian assistance. Lethal force would be required to defend the zones against air, missile, and ground attacks. This would necessitate the establishment of a limited no-fly zone, with its associated resource requirements. Thousands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones.

Control Chemical Weapons.

This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers

A couple of other comments in the letter struck me as particularly significant:

“It would be better if they (options) were assessed and discussed in the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in coordination with our allies and partners.”

“We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

After leaving Aspen and returning home to Durango, I asked myself, why did that section of the General Mattis’ talk and the points made in General Dempsey’s letter resonate with me?  The answer was pretty simple.  The biggest challenge to providing intelligence support to the military is to not just get bogged down in supporting tactical and operational missions.  To do that you focus on what did the enemy or potential enemy do yesterday, what they are doing today, and what will they be doing tomorrow.  In order to provide support to strategic level decisions, you have to look at a much broader picture or you are doing the people you support a big disservice.  A military solution might now be the best answer for a problem.  Perhaps it’s a situation that can be solved through diplomacy.  Maybe international military action under a U.N. banner is needed, etc.

The bottom line for me is if an intelligence analyst knows the desired end state of a problem, then you need to focus on what is happening in the problem region that is preventing that and make recommendations for solving the problem.  When you support military operations, you can’t just tell the decision maker what military equipment the bad guy has.  You also need to lay out the problem and include analysis of political, social and economic issues.  Also, as the military planners come up with proposed military options, the intelligence planners need to war game the potential solutions.  In other words, if we take that course of action, how might the enemy disrupt it?

Think I’ll end here.  As always my views are my own.  I’ll be blogging more about some of the topics covered in the Aspen Security Forum over the next few weeks.



Gail Harris
Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on

Great Decisions Discussion group