Gen. James N. Mattis recently stepped down as head of Central Command, which oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was responsible for a region that includes Syria, Iran, Yemen and other flashpoints. (Matt Dunham / AP)
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WASHINGTON — The increasingly isolated regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad would fall quickly without the tons of weapons and other military assistance it is getting from Iran, said Marine Gen. James Mattis, who recently stepped down as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
"Absent Iran's help, I don't believe Assad would have been in power the last six months," Mattis said Monday in a wide-ranging interview in his Pentagon office as he prepares to retire from the Marine Corps.
The remarks come as the Obama administration is considering increasing the amount of non-lethal aid to opposition forces battling the Assad regime. The administration has opted not to arm the fighters.
The Obama administration has long criticized Iran for its support of the Assad regime, but Mattis' remarks reflect how dependent the Syrian leader has become on Iranian help.
Mattis said Iran is providing weapons, advisers, money and other supplies to help the Assad regime battle a growing insurgency. Mattis said the longer the fighting goes on, the greater likelihood Syria will fracture, which will make reassembling the war-torn nation even more difficult.
Retirement and rumors
Mattis recently stepped down as head of Central Command, which oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was responsible for a region that includes Syria, Iran, Yemen and other flashpoints.
News of his retirement prompted reports that the White House had squeezed him out of the job early over policy differences. The White House has denied it.
Asked about those reports, Mattis would say only that he gave unvarnished military advice to his civilian bosses.
"The idea that you should moderate it before you give it to them is not showing respect to your civilian leadership," Mattis said.
Analysts and observers say it is unclear whether Mattis departed earlier than anticipated but said the general was very direct about his views on the threat Iran posed and the commitment required to counter it.
"Mattis was looking at Iran as the No. 1 threat in his (region)," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter, R-Calif., said Mattis made it clear that any military conflict involving Iran would not be simple or quick.
Mattis said Iran's influence in the region is based on its military posture.
"No one gives a damn what Iran thinks on any significant issue," Mattis said. "The only reason Iran is at the big boys' table is because of their nuclear weapons program."
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Mattis' tour may have been cut a little short of the typical four-year tour, but largely because of timing. His replacement, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, was available at the time.
The Obama administration was faced with cutting Mattis' tour a little short or losing Austin in that job, O'Hanlon said.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Mattis' retirement, analysts say the military will lose an important voice with his departure.
Revered inside the Marine Corps for his blunt talk and warrior ethos, Mattis has had as much influence on U.S. military policy as any general officer over the past decade, analysts say. He exercised much of that influence outside the media spotlight.
"He has become almost iconic in the Marine Corps," said Gregory Newbold, a retired Marine three-star general and friend of Mattis.
Mattis, who went on to earn a reputation as both a scholar and an aggressive combat commander, took a path into the military that differed sharply from most career officers, who typically come from military families and attend a service academy.
Mattis was an undistinguished student in high school and later at Central Washington State University. As a student he disappeared for weeks at a time, hitchhiking around the western United States and Canada and indulging a love of hiking, fishing and hunting.
He entered the Marine Corps in 1972 with little forethought other than he had a brother who fought as a Marine in Vietnam. He had no intention of making it a career.
But he took to it. As a major, he was assigned to head a troubled recruiting station in Portland, Ore.
Instead of calling for a meeting in Portland, he climbed into his car and spent weeks driving around, visiting every single recruiter throughout Washington, Idaho and Oregon, said Clarke Lethin, a retired Marine officer who worked with him in Portland.
The recruiters began making their quotas. "He turned it around overnight," Lethin said.
Mattis began amassing a library that would reach nearly 7,000 volumes. Since then, he has given away most of his books. The collection wasn't all military history. He read literature because he has often said war is a human endeavor and fiction provides a window into the heart.
Carl Fulford recalls running in the hills of Camp Pendleton in 1990 and Mattis talking excitedly about ancient military campaigns.
"Here I was just trying to overcome the pain" and Mattis was talking continuously about whatever book he was reading, said Fulford, who retired as a four-star general and at the time was Mattis' regimental commander.
"Jim was unusual," Fulford says. "He was not like many of his peers. The thing that sticks out is the intensity of his focus."
Mattis would go on to lead a battalion in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, command a task force that struck deep into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and head a division on the initial assault into Iraq in 2003. His call sign in Iraq was "chaos."
In 2010, he assumed command at U.S. Central Command, as the Iraq War was winding down and U.S. forces were surging into Afghanistan. During that time, civil war would break out in Syria, Yemen was thrown into turmoil and the United States would further confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
"Fate and circumstance always placed him at the right point and time," Lethin said.
Heading into Iraq, he borrowed an epitaph from Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla to explain counterinsurgency to his troops: "No better friend, no worse enemy."
It meant the Marines would give their lives if necessary to protect the population but would show no mercy to those who chose to fight them.
"His message resonates because people can understand it," says Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, who served under Mattis in Iraq and is now commander of basic officer training at Quantico, Va. "They know he's not going to lose a firefight. Victory is about breaking the enemy's will."
His direct language, which sometimes comes across as anachronistic to civilians, resonated among Marines, at least partly because it was so different from what they typically hear from senior leaders.
Romance of profession
Mattis doesn't talk about "exit strategies," but sprinkles his speech with words like "victory," ''ferocity" and "slaughtering" the enemy. His language evokes the romance of the profession of arms.
"There are a lot of self-imposed restrictions by people who somehow believe they have to fall in with a certain military cant," Mattis said. "There was always a sense that we had to put things into words that would touch our troops' hearts -- not just their heads."
It has sometimes gotten him into trouble. In 2005, he was giving a speech in which he said killing could be fun. Unknown to him, the speech was videotaped by a local news channel.
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis was quoted as saying. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."
Mattis was criticized for glamorizing war, but today stands unapologetic. He was counseled at the time by Marine Corps commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, but was not reprimanded. "The Marine Corps stood by me," Mattis said.
His speeches are also an effort to remind Marines of the large ideas and values behind the struggle the United States is waging against terrorism.
"Those who want to say girls don't go to school, sure I'm all for killing them, or stopping them, and if that means killing them, you do it," Mattis said during the interview.
Carefully chosen words
There is some irony that Mattis drew controversy for remarks he made in 2005. He has always chosen his words carefully.
Since 1979, Mattis has kept journals of quotes or ideas that have struck him. Today, the notebooks fill three loose-leaf binders and cover a broad range of subjects and ideas.
He remains in demand as a speaker in the Marine Corps. Recently he went to Quantico to address a group of junior officers graduating from the Marine Corps' rigorous Infantry Officer Course.
He warned the young officers against stifling the initiative of the young Marines in their charge and emphasized the importance of caring about them.
He also congratulated them on completing one of the toughest courses in the Marine Corps.
"It's not an easy course," Mattis told them. "It's not designed to be. We're not here to get you in touch with your inner child."