This story has been updated.
ASPEN, Colo. — A top Pentagon intelligence official said he saw no prospect of Mideast peace in the decades to come, a strikingly pessimistic assessment of one of the Obama administration's top foreign-policy priorities.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be stepping down from his post as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency later this year, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that Israel needed to carefully calibrate its current military offensive in Gaza so that it punished Hamas without fully eradicating it. If it did, Flynn warned that Gaza could fall under the sway of the extremist group that now controls broad swaths of Syria and Iraq.
"If Hamas were fully destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse," Flynn said Saturday night. "It would be a worse threat that could come into the ecosystem and be more dangerous, something like an [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] or an [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]."
Flynn told the crowd that the instability wracking the region was likely to continue well into the future. "Is there going to be peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime," he said.
The DIA chief's unusually blunt comments came on a weekend of violence in Gaza, where the death toll for both Israelis and Palestinians has been steadily rising.
The two sides had agreed to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire Saturday, and Israel offered to extend the agreement by another 12 hours. Hamas rejected the extension, and on Sunday morning resumed its missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israel responded with a barrage of new airstrikes on targets across Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that Israel would continue its offensive against Hamas until the militant group stopped lobbing rockets into Israel or using its tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory to mount new attacks or kidnap soldiers or civilians.
"Hamas has broken five cease-fires," Netanyahu said. "They've violated their own cease-fires. They are firing on us now.... We'll do whatever is necessary to achieve our goal of a sustained quiet."
The conflict, now entering its third week, has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 46 Israelis, including 43 soldiers. In a phone call with Netanyahu Sunday afternoon, President Obama condemned Hamas's rocket attacks on Israel and said the Jewish state had a right to defend itself, but said the United States had "serious and growing concern" about the violence and what Obama termed a "worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza," according to a White House account. Obama, according to the White House, pressed Netanyahu for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire that could then lead to broader talks about a longer-term truce. Netanyahu has said the Israeli assault will continue until its security needs have been met, and the chances of a diplomatic solution seem increasingly remote.
Flynn, who was forced to retire early after clashing with his superiors, wasn't the only top American official at the security forum here to express profound concern about the chaos in the Mideast.
Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the Syrian civil war posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland because growing numbers of foreigners were taking part in the fighting there, gaining battlefield experience they could potentially use against targets in both the United States and Europe. Foreign fighters are of enormous concern to Western security officials because they have European or American passports, making it easy for them to return to the United States and plan potential new attacks.
Olsen said at least 12,000 foreigners were taking part in the war against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, up from 7,000 a few months ago, including at least 1,000 Europeans and at least 100 Americans. Olsen said some of the Americans had returned to the United States, but stressed that many were being tracked and monitored by the FBI.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking on the same Friday panel, said the intensifying conflict in the Gaza Strip threatened to further "fuel" the ranks of foreign fighters inside Syria. "It may contribute to the number of individuals who feel that they want to become part of the fight, but not necessarily in Gaza," Mueller said.
Both men, in addition to an array of other current and former U.S. officials, said the territory held by ISIS, which has renamed itself the Islamic State, was emerging as a training camp for other militants and a safe haven for plotting other attacks.
Syria, Olsen said, was providing safe havens that were starting "to be reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan."
Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images