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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief reporters at the Pentagon, Aug. 21, 2014.(Photo: DOD / U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)

US Top Brass: Striking Syria Back on the Table

Defense Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey indicate willingness to expand US war to Syria

Jon Queally

At a press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said his determination is that the only way to adequately defeat the ISIS militants in Iraq is by expanding military operations—including possible U.S. airstrikes—into neighboring Syria.

“Can [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria?" Dempsey said to reporters. "The answer is no.”

Dempsey was joined at the briefing by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who characterized the new military engagement in Iraq as an effort that was growing, not coming to an end. "We are pursuing a long-term strategy against [ISIS] because [ISIS] clearly poses a long-term threat," Hagel said. "The U.S. military's involvement is not over. President Obama has been very clear on this point."

Asked about the Obama adminstrations position on striking targets in Syria, Hagel responded: "We're looking at all options."

Despite the condemnation of the expanding bombing campaign now underway in Iraq, the idea of further escalation—including more boots on the ground or U.S. airstrikes inside Syria—raises deeper concerns over mission creep in the region as the U.S. leadership seems poised to elevate its activity on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border which Dempsey said is "at this point a nonexistent." The idea that the U.S. military would now expand bombing into Syria fulfills the fears of those who warned that once troops were introduced and strikes authorized in Iraq, the war footprint would predictably spread.

As many observers have pointed out, the irony of Obama's foreign policy regarding ISIS in the region is while the Syrian Army of Assad has been waging the most sustained battle against the Sunni militants in recent years, the U.S. remains committed to to Assad's ouster and has even lined up military support for opposition factions aligned against him. Asked about this dynamic during Thursday's press conference, both Hagel and Dempsey reiterated that they see Assas "as part of the problem" even as they skirted the complexity and possible hypocrisy of the U.S. position regarding the ongoing and bloody Syrian civil war. From the transcript:

Q: Talking about ISIL in Syria, my question is for -- both of you, Mr. Chairman and Mr. Secretary -- do you -- do you have any information that there is a link, a relation between the Assad regime and ISIL? As you may know, the Assad regime has been striking ISIL for the last few months. Do you see yourself on the same page with the -- with the Assad regime? And do you still believe that Assad is part of the problem or he might become part of the broader solution in the region?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, Assad is very much a central part of the problem. And I think it's well documented as to why. When you have the brutal dictatorship of Assad and what he has done to his own country, which perpetuated much of what is happening or has been happening in Syria, so he's part of the problem, and as much a part of it as probably the central core of it.

As to your question regarding ISIL and Assad, yes, they are fighting each other, as well as other terrorist groups, very sophisticated terrorist groups in -- in Syria.

GEN. DEMPSEY: He is absolutely part of the problem.

SEC. HAGEL: Kevin?

Asked about the threat of mission creep, Hagel responded: "The president has been very clear on mission creep. And he's made it very clear that he will not allow that."


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