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Gen. Martin Dempsey: 'The Future Of Syria Doesn't Run Through Assad'

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This fall, General Martin Dempsey will step down as the country's highest-ranking military official after four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yesterday, we heard his views on the war in Iraq and the resilience of the so-called Islamic State there. We pick up that conversation today by asking about the war in Iraq's a neighbor, Syria.

General Dempsey, I've been looking at a series of tweets posted by the U.S. Embassy in Syria this week saying that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is working to help the ISIS extremists. And here's one tweet. It says that Assad is not just avoiding bombing ISIS lines but actively seeking to bolster their position. First, I wonder if you believe that is true, and if it is true, does it argue for airstrikes against the Assad regime?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, I've seen the same open-source reporting, and of course, our intel community is looking to either confirm or deny it. And I - there's nothing I can report to you during this interview that would lead me to believe that it is true. Nor is there anything that would dispute it. If you're Assad, you have a variety of adversaries facing you, and it wouldn't be inconceivable to me from a strategic perspective that you would focus on one or more of those and allow the others to fight among themselves - you know, divide and conquer. So the idea is not inconceivable that the Assad regime has made a deliberate decision on which groups to fight and which groups to - I wouldn't say to support, but to ignore - knowing that potentially someone else will deal with those.

BLOCK: If Assad is actually allied with ISIS at this point - not bombing their positions, helping them, basically, fight against the Syrian opposition - does it argue for airstrikes on the part of the United States against the Assad regime?

DEMPSEY: Well, I'm not sure there's much more that Assad could do that would cause us to be any more displeased with what he's done to Syria and to the Syrian people. And our strategy, as you know, is to build a moderate opposition and to empower it and to enable it to actually begin to control parts of Syria. So it wouldn't change my approach just based on the simple facts that Assad is, in some ways, encouraging some groups to the detriment of other. The future of Syria doesn't run through Assad.

BLOCK: Meaning that you do not foresee a continuing Assad regime in Syria?

DEMPSEY: Well, I don't think there's a - you know, at this point - and this goes back to something I said years ago now, is that Assad, through the actions of the regime, has lost legitimacy among the Syrian people and that Syria will no longer be Syria under the governance of the Assad regime. So the question is, how does it all sort out? And that's the subject of diplomacy.

BLOCK: But doesn't the fact that you've been saying that for years and yet Bashar al-Assad is still very much in power in Syria contradict that expectation?

DEMPSEY: No. I hope I didn't put a timetable on it for you because that's something I've been very cautious about given the complexity of the - remember, I told you this was the convergence of several issues. You can pick any one of them and simplify it, but it's the intersection of these issues related to religion and related to bad governance and instability and the moderate radical dimension. You can pick those apart, and you can challenge anyone's assertions about the future of these campaigns. But when they intersect, that's what we're trying to deal with.

BLOCK: General Dempsey, as you think back on your four years spent as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, what do you see as your legacy? What would you want to be your legacy?

DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, there are so many things that are confronting us and that must be dealt with over the next three months that I'm not being disingenuous to tell you I haven't thought a bit about my legacy. But any legacy that any chairman would aspire to grasp would have something to do with the incredible young men and women that serve in uniform and their families and keeping faith with them. And what that means is that we will only ask them to do missions that are important enough for them to risk their lives, that they'll be well supported, the best trained, the best equipped and the best-led force on the planet. That's probably going to be - when I have time to think about a legacy, that will probably be it.

BLOCK: General Dempsey, thanks for talking with us.

DEMPSEY: All right. Bye.

BLOCK: General Martin Dempsey is the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He steps down in September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.