National Security

Martin Dempsey on Syria: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In an excerpt from an interview with ABC News made available last night, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s senior military adviser, was asked about what appear to be dire developments in the Syrian border town of Kobani.

Dempsey’s response began, "Well, it may be about to fall." This delivered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice you might otherwise reserve for, say, opining about whether or not Japan is going to get hit by a bad hurricane. The tone of voice you reserve for describing someone else’s problem.

After relating that he had been discussing the matter with his Turkish counterpart earlier in the day, Dempsey continued:

Yeah, I am fearful that Kobani will fall. We have been striking when we can…ISIL’s a learning enemy and they know how to maneuver and how to use populations and concealment, and so when we get a target we’ll take it.

Marth Raddatz then asked about predictions that a "terrible slaughter" of thousands of innocents would follow Kobani falling to the Islamic State. The nation’s senior military officer:

Yeah, I heard that estimate. We think that most of the residents have actually fled…But I have no doubt that ISIL will conduct the same kind of horrific atrocities if they have the opportunity to do so.

If only someone we knew had the kind of resources—like lots of well-trained soldiers and aircraft and bombs—that could do something about such a terrible prospect. Someone like, say, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who already happens to lead a military that is ostensibly at war, or something, with the very terrorists threatening to overrun Kobani.

Yet Dempsey could not have conveyed less concern about the outcome in northern Syria if he had tried. Strike that: conveying a lack of concern was exactly what he was trying to do.

Typically when one critiques military strategy at the highest levels, one avoids criticizing those in uniform for the reason that they, ultimately, are subject to the orders of civilians. Yet in this case, Dempsey is not an innocent implementer of a misguided policy. It is well known that he has played a principal role in providing the president with cover for his Syria policy (the policy: have nothing to do with Syria) for the last several years. Dempsey, and the country, continue to reap the fruits of his dogged efforts: near total chaos in both Iraq and Syria, a new safe haven for vicious terrorists, the U.S. military back in Iraq in force, etc.

The military claims that it is taking its time in Syria because its strategy for the Islamic State is "Iraq-first." By the time Iraq is finally secure, so this argument goes, the Syrian rebel force will be ready to go. This would be more reassuring as an explanation if things weren’t going terribly in Iraq, too, despite weeks of bombing. Is this what it looks like when the U.S. military tries?

Of course not. This is what it looks like when the military is led by a man committed beyond all proportion to a doctrine of "partnering," which dictates that the Iraqis and the Syrians must do everything for themselves. Apparently this doctrine involves letting our partners die in droves when they fail, along with their families. I don’t think I would be very enthusiastic about partnering with Martin Dempsey on such terms.

Dempsey has another commitment: He still wants nothing to do with Syria, if he can help it. The proof, again, is in the timelines. Apparently even beginning to train the Syrian rebels is not going to happen for some time. The whole process, according to the envoy supervising the effort, retired Marine General John Allen (since when do wars have ‘envoys’? What happened to ‘commanders’?) will take years. As in, into the next presidential administration.

Too bad for the people of Kobani, not to mention whichever town is next for the Islamic State. Too bad for American prestige, or for the safety of the American public in a world where the Islamic State is allowed safe haven as a consequence of one general’s, and one president's, ideological commitments to a misguided doctrine and to doing nothing about Bashar al-Assad.