“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated . . . can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”
— Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, 08/21/14
Military strategy demands the disruption of an enemy’s “center of gravity.” The Islamic State’s center of gravity is in Syria, and General Dempsey’s comments last Thursday reflected that truth.
On Sunday, however, the general’s language changed. Absent evidence of “active plotting against the homeland,” Dempsey suggested that the Islamic State poses a lesser threat than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At present, he said, striking the former group inside Syria is unnecessary.
But Dempsey added a caveat. “I can tell you with great clarity and certainty that if that threat existed inside of Syria that it would certainly be my strong recommendation that we would deal with it, I have every confidence that the president of the United States would deal with it.”
Consider those words. “Clarity,” “certainty,” “strong recommendation,” “every confidence.” As a senior general, Dempsey knows how strategic messaging works. He’s carefully reemphasizing his inclination to confront the Islamic State — “carefully” being the operative word. After all, Dempsey’s latest statement suggests that he received an angry White House phone call over the weekend. Nevertheless, as during the “red-line” debacle, Dempsey is determined to protect America’s military credibility and knows that military action against the Islamic State in Syria is likely unavoidable.
For a start, Dempsey is aware that the group’s center of gravity is the Syrian city of Raqqa. Although Islamic State commanders and combat forces are spread across Iraq and Syria, Raqqa is their psychological and political heart. In its lineage as an early ninth-century capital of Sunni Islamism (where, incidentally, minority religions were also oppressed), Raqqa brings some propaganda value to the group. Were the U.S. military to target Raqqa, the impact would be twofold: It would degrade the Islamic State’s military power and its air of invincibility.
Dempsey is equally aware that the group’s combat power and its range of possible threats are flourishing in Syria. Having just seized the Syrian military base at Tabqa, the Islamic State controls a vast stretch of Syria’s Route 4 road down the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. This supply line now enables the Islamic State to support its battle in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Already controlling areas to Aleppo’s north, the jihadists can now bolster operations from the east too — it might finally capture the city, Syria’s largest. Dempsey understands that the threat here is a serious problem. Were the group to capture Aleppo, more-moderate Syrian rebel groups would suffer a hammer blow. In addition, Islamic State ranks would likely bulge as opposition fighters chose allegiance over death. Moreover, Aleppo is an arterial city for western Syria’s critical north-to-south highway. That highway leads to Damascus and then on to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Look at a map: Aleppo is only 115 miles from Lebanon and 90 miles from Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
The threat to America, not just the region, is real: Composed of totalitarian Salafi-extremists, the Islamic State despises secular democracy. And supported by thousands of European fighters, it has the capability to attack us. To make matters worse, al-Qaeda in Iraq and Edward Snowden (and the White House) have instructed IS’s improved operational security. The group now possesses many powerful ways to threaten the West — waiting to confront these until they’re used is an act of extraordinary folly.
And Dempsey knows this, because he’s read Clausewitz. He knows that force must be applied to decisive effect and that hesitating invites chaos and human cost. Unfortunately, Obama-administration officials clearly have not. If we’re already using force in Iraq, there is only one logical explanation for not using force in Syria: domestic politics. Surrounded by a liberal intelligentsia with a defective view of the world, the president sees hesitation and strategic caution as one and the same. Their latest leak — that surveillance flights are underway over Syria — provides a case in point. In order to test their feet in the waters of public opinion, they’re allowing the Islamic State to conceal its forces.
Still, Dempsey offers hope: The tone of what America’s top general says in public suggests what his private advice to the president has been. That advice is invaluable. Thankfully, Dempsey is more than a talented and versatile singer — both in words and in action, he’s a superb strategist.
His influence in the White House has never been more necessary.