Top U.S. commander in the Middle East 'not consulted' before Trump announced Syria drawdown

By Tony Bertuca / February 5, 2019 at 11:55 AM

Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command, told senators today he was "not consulted" prior to President Trump's announcement that American troops would begin exiting Syria.

Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military is in the early stages of a drawdown from Syria and pledged it would be coordinated with U.S. allies.

"I don't consider this to be either time-based or conditions-based [withdrawal]. The fact is the president made a decision," Votel said. "We are going to do that in a very deliberate manner. I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date and I have not had any specific conditions put upon me. I look at this as an additional task."

Trump first announced the planned drawdown with a Dec. 19 video posted to his official Twitter account: "We have won against ISIS," he said. "Our boys, our young women, our men -- they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now."

When asked by Sen. Angus King (I-ME) if he knew about Trump's decision beforehand, Votel said: "I was not consulted."

Trump is expected to discuss the drawdown tonight during his State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, Votel also said it is likely the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria will continue to evolve into a guerrilla-like insurgency as its physical "caliphate" is wiped out.

"We should expect that they will continue to attack us and to continue to regenerate themselves," he said.

Votel said ISIS' military controls about 20 square miles of urban terrain in southern Syria with approximately 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, while the rest of the force has gone into hiding.

Votel said the "details are being developed now and will ensure campaign continuity and capitalize on the contributions of the international community to prevent a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria."

Votel said diplomats are working on a plan to ensure Turkey does not attack America's Kurdish allies once U.S. troops withdraw.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved an amendment Monday put forth by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that says ISIS remains a serious threat to the United States and warns that "a precipitous withdrawal" from Syria and Afghanistan would allow ISIS to regroup and continue to destabilize the Middle East.

Senators also questioned Votel about U.S. plans to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan amid reported opposition from the Afghan government.

Votel said peace discussions between U.S. diplomats and the Taliban are in the "very, very early stages," but said the Afghan government would play a large role in any final deal.

"Ultimately, we need a Taliban-Afghan discussion," he said.