- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Islamic State’s “caliphate” has been reduced to a 20-square-mile sliver of territory in Syria, but the fight against the terror group and violent extremists in the region is far from over, the top U.S. commander in the region told lawmakers Tuesday.

U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel admitted to the Senate Armed Service Committee he had not been consulted before President Trump’s December decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, but told the panel the Pentagon is ready to carry out the president’s in a “deliberate and coordinated manner.”

“We are adjusting our military posture in Syria, planning and executing a deliberate, safe and professional withdrawal of personnel and equipment while preserving sufficient power in the region,” Gen. Votel said in prepared remarks.

The general said he was among many who were taken by surprise by the timing of Mr. Trump’s announcement, which some fear will leave U.S. allies in Syria in the lurch and give Islamic State and other terror groups time to regroup. The withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria was a major factor in Defense Secretary James Mattis’ decision to step down at the end of 2018.

“I was not consulted prior to the decision was announced,” Gen. Votel said under questioning from Sen. Angus King, Maine independent, while adding Mr. Trump’s position was well known and that U.S. commanders did not feel pressure to be out by a specific date.



“Certainly we aware that [Mr. Trump] has expressed a desire and an intent in the past to depart Syria,” Gen. Votel said.

While agreeing with Mr. Trump that Islamic State was “99 percent” defeated territorially in Syria, the group remained a potent threat amid the still-unsettled political conditions in the region.

“If the major actors and their proxies become embroiled in a competition for influence in Syria, this may create space for ISIS remnants or other terrorist groups to reform or reconstitute,” the general said.

The general estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 Islamic State fighters in the small area they still control in Syria near the Iraqi border. The remainder, he said, have “gone to ground,” and could potentially return to the fight.

Gen. Votel spent a lot of time on Iran, which he said “continues to present threats to us across the region,” both with its missile programs and its support for countries and forces hostile to the U.S. and its regional allies.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, pressed the general on the comments Mr. Trump made to CBS Sunday suggesting U.S. troops would stay in Iraq indefinitely to “watch” Iran and prevent the re-emergence of terror threats — a statement that brought a sharp rebuke from Iraq’s president and other officials in Baghdad.

“Senator, we are in Iraq by invitation of the government,” Gen. Votel confirmed. “Our military mission on the ground remains very focused on the reason the government of Iraq asked us to come there and that is focusing on the defeat of ISIS and now preventing a resurgence of that particular organization.”

Senators on the committee repeatedly expressed concern with threats Iran poses not only to stability in the region but also to the U.S. and other Western nations. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multilateral 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran and is now pressuring other nations to cut off Iran economically.

“An Iran with nuclear weapons poses a more enduring and serious threat to us long-term, so our approach does need to make sure they be denied all pass for them to get to a nuclear weapon,” Gen. Votel said.

A number of sensitive topics in the region, including the extent of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, was relegated to a classified session later in the day. Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe said he was pleased with Gen. Votel’s testimony, but also noted that more could have been shared with the public.

“It was very informative and there are legitimate reasons why these can’t be brought up,” the Oklahoma Republican told The Washington Times, “I think there are a lot of things he didn’t do in the public he could have done in the security briefing.”

Asked if he agreed with the assessment that Islamic State was 99 percent defeated, “I don’t know if I’d attach a percentage to it. I know it’s not 100 percent, I know we’ve made great strides.”

Mr. Inhofe told The Washington Times the committee will be evaluating the global threats outlined by Gen. Votel as well as other intelligence officials in drawing up the Pentagon’s 2020 budget.

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