Can’t defeat ISIS without attacking its stronghold in Syria: Gen Dempsey

President Obama with his national security advisors. Photo: White House/Pete Souza
President Obama with his national security advisors. Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The top brass of the US military has painted President Barack Obama into a tight corner by publicly breaking with the administration position on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on 21 August that the Islamic militant group could not be defeated without attacking it at its stronghold in Syria. He also singled out the ISIS as specially dangerous for its “apocalyptic world-view”.

The timing of the statement, and its very public venue at the nerve centre of the US military, is significant: it comes as worries among Democrats and Republicans alike grow over the President’s “hands off” approach to the middle-east, and to governance in general.

“Can they (ISIS) be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria?” Gen Dempsey summarised a pointed question from a reporter as he prepared to answer it, with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel beside him.

“The answer is ‘no’,” the Gen said. “That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border (between Iraq and Syria).”

Islamic militants control large parts of Iraq and Syria, where they have declared a Caliphate and imposed a radical version of Islamic or Shariah law. They have executed minorities, including Christians and Shiites, prompting the US to launch “limited” air strikes on 8 August, halting the militants’ lightning advance.

ISIS then beheaded an American journalist James Foley on 19 August in retaliation for the strikes and released a video of the gruesome murder, bringing the horror home to ordinary Americans in a way that analyses by experts and think-tanks did not.

But the real shocker came later, with Obama’s response to the crisis in the middle of a leisurely vacation at an upscale island resort. After reading a sombre statement with all the gravitas he could summon, the President went straight back to his golf game — grinning incongruously as he drove a golf cart minutes later.

Unsurprisingly, Obama took a lot of flak from stock critics like conservative talk show hosts, but this time they were joined by politicians and commentators from both sides. Even the liberal and respected New York Times, which generally stays clear of the weathervane reporting of political winners and losers, ran a lengthy report headlined “A Terrorist Horror, Then Golf: Incongruity Fuels Obama Critics”.

General Martin Dempsey, who is the country’s top soldier and the President’s military advisor, has seemed to chafe at the bit recently as ISIS has made spectacular gains in Iraq and Syria. At a security conference in Washington DC on 24 July, the normally circumspect general made a distinction between the administration and military points of view. He also elaborated on the unique danger posed by ISIS.

General Dempsey served over a year in Iraq as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-dead founder of the original avatar of ISIS, was building a network with a unique signature of brutality.

In 2003-2004, the Jordanian Musawi was attracting former Bathists, Sunnis and foreign fighters to join him, carrying out mass attacks in Baghdad, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco. With his brutality, he was building a reputation that was beginning to eclipse even Bin Laden’s.

At the security conference at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, General Dempsey was asked a pointed question if the government and military were “committed to destroying ISIS”. He replied that he could only speak for the military, which he maintained, had to “initially contain, eventually disrupt and finally defeat” ISIS.

“It is important to recognize the differences among them (the Islamic militant groups)…Some of them are opportunistic. Some of them seek to establish a sense of political Islam and theocracies under Shariah law,” the General said, drawing a distinction between these and ISIS, which is “especially dangerous”.

“And some of them are apocalyptic, actually, meaning they have such a world view that it becomes — it becomes of a magnitude that makes them, I think especially dangerous,” he said.

This detailed critique on the religious grounding of the ISIS is also at odds with Obama’s perspective because the President has sought strip the “war on terror” of its religious terminology during his six years at the White House, asking his officials to drop any reference to Islamic militants and refer to them simply as terrorists.

“(ISIS) has to keep moving toward its ultimate end-of-days apocalyptic narrative or it will lose support because it loses religious legitimacy,” Gen Dempsey observed at the forum.

“Apocalyptic” refers to the same collection of supernatural events within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, when a battle between the forces of good and evil, set in the general region of Syria, Iraq and Iran ends with the victory of good after which the just are rewarded.


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