Bill Dean, who played a key role in leading the fight against Islamic State, died climbing Mount Rainier in the United States last week. He was remembered by fellow soldiers, Kurdish fighters and former US envoy for the global coalition against ISIS for his courage and leadership.
Wesley Morgan, Politico’s military affairs reporter, wrote that a former colleague of Dean described him as “easily one of the five most important Americans on [the] ground in the campaign.” He helped free Yazidis kidnapped by ISIS, liberate cities in eastern Syria, and caused ISIS many casualties. He also “gave the Syrian Kurds a fair shot,” Morgan wrote.
The Associated Press reported his death on May 30 from a rock fall: “Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office identified a climber who died on Mount Rainier as 45-year-old Arleigh William Dean of Alaska.” Two other climbers were injured.
Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS from October 2015 to December 2018, was shocked by the news of Dean’s death.
“Bill Dean was a quiet warrior who helped lead the campaign against ISIS in Syria,” McGurk tweeted. “His courage and ingenuity turned a bleak situation into a winning campaign. Thank you Bill, for all you have done for our country.”
He also sought to highlight lessons from Dean’s central role and to ponder what the US goal is today in eastern Syria. “Thinking of Bill, serious question: With tenuous security in northeast Syria,” he noted.
There were two bombings in Raqqa, the former capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” on June 1, a sign that ISIS is seeking to escalate its attacks. McGurk wondered what would happen with a reduced US presence and the White House prohibiting support for stabilization efforts.
ISIS was largely defeated in March in a ground campaign in which Dean had played a key role. After losing Raqqa in the fall of 2017, ISIS was slowly encircled and destroyed near Baghuz on the Euphrates River. But it still took all of 2018 to defeat the group, and it is estimated that tens of thousands of ISIS supporters and fighters remain in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts. In addition, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi put out a video in April.
ISIS has carried out terrorist attacks and burned fields, a return to its methods before 2013. This means it seeks to rekindle an insurgency.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are the main partners of the US in eastern Syria. They are a group formed in 2015 to combine other groups in eastern Syria that were fighting ISIS, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. This group helped liberate a huge swath of Syria from ISIS at a time when ISIS was committing genocide against minorities and destroying Syria and Iraq.
In 2018, the US attempted to shift resources from fighting ISIS alongside the SDF and other coalition members, to “stabilization.” It wanted to train thousands of local security forces and also de-mine areas and rebuild cities.
But some of this investment ended, including the growing presence of US diplomats on the ground in December 2018, when US President Donald Trump announced the US would leave Syria. Since then, the US has said it will leave behind some forces, and wants to work with Turkey on a “buffer zone” between the SDF and Turkey. Turkey views the SDF as linked to the PKK, which both the US and Turkey see as terrorists. This is one of the complexities of Syria today.
DEAN, WHO helped lay the groundwork for the stability that exists in eastern Syria, was remembered by many on social media.
“Bill Dean was an American hero, many tours in combat in the US Army, with the most elite units,” wrote Daniel Gade on Twitter. “West Point [graduate in 1997] and Stanford graduate. Father and husband.”
“What a shocker and so sad to hear,” recalled Paul Cobaugh in response on social media. “Bill Dean was an extraordinary officer and human being.”
A fellow Naval Postgraduate School member recalled him as a capable officer and a natural athlete.
“An all around fantastic person,” wrote Mike Nelson.
He did more to break ISIS than just about any other American, Eric Robinson wrote online.
SOF News, which shares news of special operations forces, said it had received the sad news about the death of the special operations officer: “Died during a climbing expedition on Mount Rainier on May 29. He served with Special Forces and 1st SFOD-D... He had retired just last year and returned home to Alaska.” SFOD-D is the abbreviation for 1st Special Forces Operational
Detachment Delta, or Delta Force.
On LinkedIn, a profile says that he attended the Naval Postgraduate School from 2009 to 2011, and was at West Point from 1993 to 1997. He began studying at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 2017. He wrote on article posted on the site about the importance of being in a “high performing team.”
Kurds on Twitter also expressed remorse, memories and shock. Polat Can recalled that Dean had a “main role in the fight against ISIS during Kobani battle and other areas in Rojava. Sad to lose a friend such [as an officer like] Bill who was friend for our people and our forces.”
Kobani was a key battle in 2014 and early 2015. A city in eastern Syria on the Turkish border, it was surrounded by ISIS but US airstrikes and the stout resistance of the Kurdish fighters in the city eventually broke the ISIS offensive after high casualties. It was the beginning of the decline and fall of ISIS over the next several years, and proved to the US how the Kurds would be a crucial a partner in the battle. Dean played a vital role in the offensive from Kobani in 2015 to Raqqa in the fall of 2017.
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