- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Top Pentagon officials suggested Wednesday that President Trump’s goal of a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria may still be years away, conceding that “it’s hard to foresee anytime soon” that the U.S. and its allies will completely crush the threat posed by the Islamic State.

In wide-ranging testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley argued that American troops are needed in Syria until regional forces are able to handle the fight entirely on their own. Given the chaos across Syria, such a U.S. handoff does not appear to be on the horizon.

The comments by Mr. Esper and Gen. Milley come just two months after Mr. Trump again said he was ordering the U.S. out of Syria, where ground forces have been stationed since 2015 in the U.S.-led battle against the terror group also known as ISIS. Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of some U.S. Special Operations forces in October to keep out of harm’s way as Turkey launched an incursion against American-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

While the U.S. military eventually did pull some forces from the country and redeployed others to different parts of Syria, roughly 600 troops remain in the country today, officials said, and the core of their mission remains the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State.

The top two Pentagon officers also touched on a host of other topics during their more than two hours of testimony. They expressed optimism that recently renewed talks with the Taliban could lead to the long-awaited major U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, warned Iran to not test the U.S. with any further provocations in the region, and argued that President Trump’s recent pardons of U.S. military personnel suspected of war crimes would not undercut the military’s ability to police its own.

“We will maintain good order and discipline,” Gen. Milley said in one particularly pointed exchange with Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat. “We will not turn into a gang of raping and burning, pillaging throughout.”

Broadly, Mr. Esper and Gen. Milley also stressed that America’s long-term foreign policy goals center on countering the rising threats from major global competitors, chiefly China and Russia.

On Syria, reaching the goal of a full defeat of Islamic State will prove difficult, both men acknowledged. Mr. Esper and Gen. Milley both told lawmakers that while ISIS’s physical foothold has been eliminated, the group’s ideology remains strong and could quickly fuel a resurgence of the group.

“I think the defeat, if you will, will be hard because it’s an ideology,” Mr. Esper told lawmakers after repeated questions on America’s long-term goals in Syria. “It’s hard to foresee anytime soon we would stamp it out.”

Last month, military officials said the U.S. had “reset” inside Syria and has resumed anti-ISIS operations in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group that accused Mr. Trump of abandoning them when he ordered the October withdrawal.

After that move and the subsequent Turkish invasion, the president said the U.S. would keep only a small number of troops in Syria to protect oil fields and ensure they don’t fall under the control of ISIS.

Some lawmakers said it’s become clear the Trump administration has no firm long-term strategy for Syria, leading to widespread confusion about what the U.S. is doing there and how long American troops will stay.

“The bottom line is this administration really has no overarching policy in the Middle East, and with respect to Syria it appears just to be a series of ad hoc decisions, stumbling from one decision to the next,” said Rep. Jason Crow, Colorado Democrat.

From the military’s point of view, officials said it’s vital to maintain a presence inside Syria in order to gather intelligence that can be used to take out top terrorist targets. Such on-the-ground capabilities led to the U.S. military raid in late October that resulted in the death of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“My assessment at this point is if we do not retain capability, an intelligence capability, that allows us to collect and see and then act with a strike capability on ISIS in Syria, then ISIS, the conditions for reemergence of ISIS will happen,” Gen. Milley said. “It’ll take some time. It’ll probably take 6-to-12 months or something like that. But ISIS will reemerge if the United States went to zero” troops inside Syria.

Some members expressed sympathy for the Pentagon’s plight, needing to keep an eye on challenges such as Iran and Syria even as President Trump seeks to honor a promise to end U.S. involvement in the region’s “forever wars.”

“The Middle East doesn’t really let you get away from it,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.

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