BERKELEY, Calif. — Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who was responsiblefor overseeing 20 Middle Eastern countries as the former commander of Central Command, recently gave a series of lectures at the University of California-Berkeley this week.
In an insightful talk Wednesday evening, which focused on threats emanating from Iran, he offered up the “primary drivers” in the Middle East region, talking at length about threats to the U.S., countries that remain hostile, and the challenges that remain.
“Understanding and dealing with this region can be very, very frustrating. I’m the first to admit its halfway driven me to drink, to tell you the truth,” said Mattis, to some audience laughter.
While certainly a light-hearted remark, it’s easy to see some truth in it, considering the complexity in the region.
On the Arab Spring:
“The most important pulse that’s sweeping through the region right now is the Arab Spring. In this regard, in my testimony on Capitol Hill, I often have to caution people who want to see it as a democratic revolution. You have to take this for what it is, not for what you want it to be.”
“What it is, I believe, is a flight from unjust, unresponsive governments, with a fundamental breakdown of the social contract between those governments and the people. It is not necessarily … a rush towards democracy, as much as you and I would like to see that, and as much as many millions of Arabs would like to see democracy.”
If you want to know where the Arab Spring is going, Mattis said, “I would watch Egypt very, very closely … [but] we must also accept that there will be setbacks, such as when the democratically-elected Muslim brotherhood — they were elected — only to get thrown out a year later by a military that backed up the largest mass demonstration in history.”
“The military stepped in, took control of the situation, and did what I would call a military coup with the support of the Egyptian people … if you look at that and that setback that occurred at that moment, I would not exaggerate its impact. It’s a real problem — it threw them off their democratic trajectory, but if they get the process back quickly, then they can bring their democratic efforts back online.”
“This tension that you see coming out of the Sunni and Shia tribes, I will tell you it’s heavily-fuelled by Iran. Iran sees themselves as the champion of all the Shia and they have been doing their best to destabilize much of the Middle East.”
On Iranian-inspired and funded terror groups:
“[There is] Hezbollah and associated terrorists. They declared war on the U.S. in the early 1980s. You’ll remember attacks on our embassy in Beirut, on the French paratrooper barracks and U.S. Marine peacekeeping barracks in 1983. Of course they killed Prime Minister
Hariri in Lebanon. They murdered Israeli tourists in Bulgaria … they even tried to murder Ambassador Adel [Al-Jubeir], the Saudi ambassador, in downtown Washington, D.C. less than two miles from the White House … this was an operation approved at the highest levels in Tehran to try to murder an ambassador. Ambassadors are men and women of peace, and that shows the levels of recklessness we can expect out of the Iranians.”
“It is a civil war between Sunni and Shia factions, and it’s being played out in the worst possible way … [But] the only reason Assad is still in power is Iran. Had they not continued to provide support, Assad would have been gone years ago.”
On Al Qaeda:
“They declared war on the United States in the mid-1990s. Bombed our embassies in East Africa, attacked the USS Cole in a neutral port, they brought down the trade towers on the second attempt … and they also killed a gentleman by the name of Massoud [The Afghan Northern Alliance leader] the day before the [9/11] attacks.”
“Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been very badly hurt by the U.S. counterterrorism campaign. The bottom line is, there’s a large number of their leaders who will not collect their 401k’s.” While Al Qaeda’s move to ‘franchising’ is troubling, “anyone who says we’ve got them on the run or they have been defeated, I would be very leary.”
The group still maintains sanctuaries in the rough region of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, Mattis said, although its leadership has suffered under the American drone campaign. There is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Mattis described as “the most active branch targeting America right now. They are ones who tried to bring down the airliner over Detroit on Christmas a few years ago.”
In Somalia, there’s Al Shabaab. “The African Union troops have been very effective, helped and trained by U.S. Special Forces and others. They have attacked and thrown Al Shabaab out of most of their strongholds. They are on the run, but they are not out yet.”
In western Iraq, there is a resurgence of Al Qaeda fighters which have mostly spilled over from Syria. “There’s somewhere between five and 10,000 Al Qaeda operating right now.”
“It’s a real messy situation, and anyone who says Al Qaeda is knocked out, again, I think that’s very, very premature.”
On the Middle East peace process:
“The bottom line is, the status quo between the Palestinians and Israel is not sustainable. We cannot continue to have this problem and pass it on to your children. We can solve it on our watch [but] the chance for a two-state solution is going backward.”
“The problem with Secretary [John] Kerry’s efforts right now is, I don’t know if the protagonists in the Palestinian Authority and Israel want the solution as much as he does … it’s going to take some masterful negotiation to get them close.”
We also need to remember, Mattis said, “Iran doesn’t care one bit about Palestinians but they use the issue to keep enflaming the region.”
While offering myriad problems in the region, Mattis pushed for the U.S. to remain engaged, not only to counter threats but also to support friendly countries who have offered the U.S. military or diplomatic support for many years, to include Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
“The vacuums in this region, when they fill up, they don’t always fill up with positive elements — stabilizing elements, and we’re not going to be able to put a blanket over our head and hide from the world,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the vacuum in Syria and see how bad it can go.”
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