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Why a strategy to fight ISIS in Syria will take time

By Mark Hertling
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A wounded child walks at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma after being injured in a reported airstrike by government forces on Tuesday, December 23. Douma, located near Damascus, has been under government siege for more than a year, with residents facing dwindling food and medical supplies.The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. A wounded child walks at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma after being injured in a reported airstrike by government forces on Tuesday, December 23. Douma, located near Damascus, has been under government siege for more than a year, with residents facing dwindling food and medical supplies.The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Americans see barbarity perpetuated by ISIS and want it stopped as soon as possible
  • But retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says developing smart strategy takes time
  • He says the Syria situation is particularly complex, given the ongoing civil war
  • Hertling: Many agencies, constituencies need to be heard from in the planning

Editor's note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, served in the Army for more than 37 years and spent more than three years in Iraq. He was serving as the director for war plans on the Joint Staff on September 11 and has extensive experience in strategy development and implementation. He is a CNN military analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When asked to describe "strategy," every military leader who has attained the rank of colonel will probably begin the description with an explanation of ends, ways and means.

"Ends" define the objectives or the outcomes desired, in effect, the goals the nation aspires to achieve. "Means" are the various resources available to the political (or military) leader, and "ways" are how that leader applies the resources to achieve the ends. It is a simple model taught at all our nation's war colleges (and in most higher-level military and political institutions around the world).

But determining the way in which the various means of national power are applied requires statecraft and coordination, an integrated comparison of potential options and an analysis of expected and unexpected outcomes, and a determination of the risks which face the nation in both the short and the long term.

Although it is always important to act quickly in developing strategies which address challenges to the nation's security, the informed strategist also knows he has to weigh options from those who represent all the elements of power -- diplomacy, information, economics, military -- before he "decides to decide," that is, makes a decision in the right time to affect the desired outcome.

When Americans see the kind of barbarity perpetuated by those in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we want it stopped. And we want it stopped now, before these extremists kill more innocents in increasingly horrific ways or bring jihad to our shores to carry out more attacks.

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Many believe that air power -- applied unrelentingly and precisely -- will destroy or defeat the scourge which ISIS represents. So many want that, in Syria, right now.

Precision strikes are certainly a means to effect the strategic ends. We have seen air power -- when supporting Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga fighters -- have a significant effect as part of the strategy to protect Americans in Irbil and Baghdad, relieve humanitarian crisis related to Yazidis and now Turkmen citizens, and influence the Iraqi Parliament to revamp its leadership.

But there were a lot of plans and preparation that went along with those effective airstrikes.

With Iraq, our national security team took into consideration advice from State, Department of Defense and Intelligence Agency analysts, ambassadors, regional military commanders and advisers on the ground and the regional political, social and cultural processes.

In Syria, it will be much more difficult. Consider the additional complexities involved: the ongoing Syrian civil war involving a government we don't support; a veritable "Star Wars" bar scene of anti-government groups that change hands almost on a daily basis; an unfamiliar territory, culture, religion, linguistics; an international community that wants action, and which will probably be affected by returning jihadists but may not be willing to join a coalition to counter the same; various moderate Islamists who are slow to condemn those in this extremist group; and an enemy that is integrated into the population within the borders of a failed state. All of these affect the development of short- and long-term strategy for Syria and for the region.

The military supports national strategy by developing various courses of action for our forces, all of which affect strategy development and the accomplishment of the national objectives.

Under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provides various options to the President and then provides an analysis on their probability of success in contributing to the desired outcomes. But those options -- like the use of air power in executing strikes -- do not stand alone.

A few years ago, as a war planner, I contributed to strategies developed for countering terrorist groups. The strategy for countering ISIS in Syria is significantly more difficult and is probably still evolving because there are many more factors to consider.

We should want that strategy to be better than those we've had in the past. Unfortunately, the formulation of that strategy will require more time and more coordination with more agencies to achieve the right ends.

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