CentCom Commander: 'I Was Not Aware' of Syria Withdrawal Announcement

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central command, testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central command, testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, said Tuesday that President Donald Trump did not consult him before announcing Dec. 19 that he was ordering the withdrawal of the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria.

"I was not aware of the specific announcement," Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. But he added that he and others in the high command knew in general terms of Trump's "desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria."

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked: "So you weren't consulted before that decision was announced?"

Votel responded, "We were not -- I was not consulted."

On Dec. 20, the day after the president made the Syria withdrawal announcement, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned, stating that Trump as commander-in-chief should have a defense secretary whose views are "better aligned" with his own.

Votel's statement appears to be the first confirmation on the record from anyone in the high command that Trump's order to pull out from Syria blindsided the military in its mission to inflict a lasting defeat on the Islamic State.

The highly respected Votel, former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, also appears to be at odds with Trump on the resiliency of ISIS and the terror group's ability to surge again once U.S. troops leave.

In December, Trump tweeted, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

He has since said that the withdrawal will be gradual, with some of the U.S. troops in Syria re-deploying to Iraq while others return to the States. There have been no reports to date of U.S. troops leaving Syria.

In response to questions from the committee, Votel, who will be retiring in the coming months after 38 years of service, said the fight against ISIS in Syria is not over. He gave no timetable for completing the mission.

He said that about 1,500 to 2,000 ISIS fighters remain in a 20-square-mile pocket in Syria near the Iraqi border. He also estimated that there are about 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters or sympathizers in the region who have mostly gone to ground and are carrying out sporadic insurgent activities.

"The fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over, and our mission has not changed," Votel said.

"I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date," he said, but "the fact is, the president made a decision and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw forces from Syria and, as we do that, we're going to do that in a very deliberate manner."

During the withdrawal, "We should expect that they [ISIS fighters] will attempt to attack us and regenerate themselves, and we will continue to put pressure on them to prevent that," Votel said.

He gave the committee assurances that the U.S. will seek to protect the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who have led the fight against ISIS in Syria, and the Syrian-Kurdish fighters within the SDF.

Votel said that a "key task" for the U.S. during the withdrawal will be "the protection of those who have fought valiantly with us and ensuring that they remain safe as our diplomats and United Nations and others pursue a political solution here in Syria."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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