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Top General in Middle East Says He Was ‘Not Consulted’ on Syria Withdrawal

Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/REUTERS)

The top U.S. general in the Middle East said Tuesday that he was not consulted before President Trump’s surprise announcement in December of a planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops currently in Syria.

“I was not aware of the specific announcement,” U.S. Central Command commander General Joseph Votel said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Certainly we are aware that [Trump] has expressed a desire and an intent in the past to depart Syria. . . . I was not consulted.”

Last week, U.S. intelligence chiefs warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that ISIS is likely to “continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.” The Department of Defense inspector general also warned in report released Monday that “ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory.”

Votel said he expects U.S. troops to regain control of the less-than-20 square miles ISIS still controls, the last of the 34,000 square miles the group once held, before withdrawal.

“I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date,” he said. “It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed.”

“The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against a now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources, and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts,” he added. “Right now, we are working through a variety of planning scenarios for how we would potentially continue to maintain pressure on ISIS as we withdraw out of Syria.”

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