Sources close to the Pentagon and the White House have confirmed that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bypassed normal protocol to force a change in Obama Administration policy on the ongoing Iraq-Syria ISIS crisis. According to several sources, Gen. Dempsey used a recent occasion where he and President Obama were attending a memorial event in the Washington, DC, area to brief the President one-on-one on the immediate threat posed by ISIS. At the time (just prior to the Obama Martha’s Vineyard vacation), ISIS forces were on the verge of launching an offensive to take over Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region. They had already defeated the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in a series of decisive battles. Dempsey warned the President that if Erbil were to fall to ISIS, the Islamic State rebels could next move on the Kurdish region of Iran—and that would trigger a much bigger regional war that would also fuel the Sunni versus Shi’ite conflict.
Dempsey insisted that the President had to authrorize emergency support to the Kurds, but that the Administration had to develop a comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS, that involved the major regional players taking a leading role. At his press conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel late last week, Gen. Dempsey reiterated many of the points he had made in his private briefing to Obama.
The net effect, according to the Washington sources, is that the President’s hand has now been forced. He cannot dodge his Constitutional responsibilities under both Article I, Section 8, and the War Powers Resolution, to get Congressional authorization for any further military actions. Furthermore, sources confirm that the United States is sharing intelligence with both the Syrians and the Iranians. In the case of Syria, as reported over the weekend in The Independent, the US military is passing intelligence to the Syrian government on key ISIS positions via the German BND and other European intelligence services. And in Baghdad, American intelligence and military personnel are providing intelligence to Iran, including the Al Quds Brigade, via trusted Iraqi government intermediaries. While Gen. Dempsey was very careful in his wording during the press conference last week, making clear that the United States is not yet acting as a “partner” to either Syria or Iran, he did make clear that there are productive lines of collaboration when they are operating against a dangerous common enemy—ISIS.
The actions by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the support of Defense Secretary Hagel, have pre-empted the regular White House national security advisors to the President, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power. By acknowledging the deadly threat posed by ISIS, the US role has gone from humanitarian assistance to combat support and the Congressional debate and approval can no longer be dodged.
While the Obama Administration has yet to devise an actual strategy against ISIS, the forcing of the debate and the operational cooperation with Syria and Iran has already changed the equation, several sources have emphasized.