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CENTCOM General: I wasn’t made aware of Trump’s Syria troop withdrawal

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, speaks to the press at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Aug. 08, 2018. (U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence/Department of Defense)
February 05, 2019

One of the top generals in the U.S. Army said Tuesday that he was not consulted or made aware of the plan to pull U.S. troops out of Syria until after President Donald Trump tweeted about it.

“I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly we are aware that he [President Trump] has expressed a desire and an intent in the past to depart Syria,” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel said, The Hill reported.

President Trump had tweeted late last year that the United States has “defeated ISIS,” and that the U.S. would be withdrawing all troops from Syria. There have more recently been reports that the withdrawal has begun, but it is initially equipment being withdrawn from the country, and not necessarily troops just yet.

Last week, when speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Committee report, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said ISIS “very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.”

“ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria. … [ISIS] will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term,” Coats had said.

And on Monday, the Pentagon issued an Inspector General report that said ISIS could resurge  in Syria within six to 12 months without “sustained counterterrorism pressure.” Votel also echoed the sentiments that ISIS could mount a comeback

There had been reports prior to Trump’s tweets that the U.S. military was preparing for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of more than 2,000 American service members in northeastern Syria, which would abruptly end the ground mission against ISIS there. It has since been reported that the troop withdrawal might not be as rapid as previously stated, but no details are being made public at this time.

The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which said that U.S. officials began informing their partners in Syria of plans to immediately withdraw U.S. troops.

A defense official had confirmed to CNN that plans were underway for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of U.S. troops. The official told CNN that the decision was rendered by President Trump.

There are approximately 2,000 U.S. service members in Syria who mainly help train local soldiers, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to fight against ISIS.

U.S. troops have been in Syria fighting ISIS for more than four years.

While Trump has said in the past that he would like to withdraw all troops from Syria, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had said this past fall that troops would remain in Syria to complete their mission of defeating ISIS so the terrorist group cannot mount a comeback.

Mattis resigned as defense secretary late last year, citing differences of opinion with Trump. It is believed that their differing viewpoints on U.S. troops in Syria to fight ISIS was one of the final straws.

There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, which neighbors Syria to the east. Operation Inherent Resolve is the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

Votel was speaking Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

“Right now, we are working through a variety of planning scenarios for how we would potential continue to maintain pressure on ISIS as we withdraw out of Syria,” Votel later said. “I think that’s probably a discussion more appropriate for the closed session, but we certainly are looking at all options for how we might do that.”

Votel added, “The fact is the President made a decision, and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw from Syria. And as we do that, we are going to do that in a very deliberate manner. We are going to do that in conjunction with our campaign plan. And we are going to consider things like protection of our partners, the Kurds. We are going to consider that concerns that Turkey has along their border. And we are going to consider how we keep pressure on ISIS. And all of that is taking place right.”