The top commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he was not asked for his advice about a withdrawal of US troops from Syria before President Donald Trump announced his decision.
“I was not consulted,” the general said.
Syria war: Kurdish fighters battle ISIL in its last controlled area
It has begun to withdraw equipment from Syria and is expected to begin the drawdown of personnel soon.
Trump’s December decision to leave Syria, shocked US allies and led to the resignations of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the top envoy to the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) coalition.
Trump initially said the withdrawal would be rapid but the pace has slowed as military officials work out the logistics of the pull-out.
Votel said that of the 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km) of territory that ISIL once held, it now controls less than 20 square miles (52 square km).
“It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIL and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed,” he said.
Votel said that there are now between 1,000 and 1,500 ISIL fighters in the small area they still control in the southern part of the Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border.
The remainder, he said, have “dispersed” and “gone to ground,” suggesting they retain the potential to return.
Potential ISIL regrouping
Trump said in a weekend interview that ISIL is “almost knocked out.”
“We’re at 99 percent right now, we’ll be at 100,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation”.
The withdrawal will fulfill Trump’s goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that ISIL remains a threat and could regroup.
A Defense Department watchdog report released Monday warned of just such a possibility, saying that ISIL “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’ absent continued counterterrorism pressure,” the report from the inspector general said.
Trump’s Syria withdrawal has also fueled rare, vocal opposition from within his own Republican party.
The Republican-led US Senate on Monday backed largely symbolic legislation that broke with Trump by opposing plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
It warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia.
“The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against the now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIL that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts,” Votel said.
The top commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he was not asked for his advice about a withdrawal of US troops from Syria before President Donald Trump announced his decision. “I was not consulted,” the general said.