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Top US general says Trump did not consult him on Syria announcement

U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel speaks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Washington.

(CNN) — The commander of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said Tuesday he “was not consulted” prior to President Donald Trump’s December announcement that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria.

And despite Trump’s claims that ISIS has been defeated, Votel said the fight against the terror group is “not over” and warned ISIS could regroup after US troops leave.

“I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly we are aware that he had expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria,” Gen. Joseph Votel said during a Tuesday hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“So you weren’t consulted before that decision was announced?” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked.

“We were not, I was not consulted,” Votel responded.

In December, Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” later releasing a video where he said US troops are “all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”

That decision prompted the resignations of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Special Presidential Envoy to the Counter-ISIS campaign Brett McGurk.

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

He said ISIS still controls about 20 square miles of territory in Syria where the terror group still commands approximately 1,000 to 1,500 fighters.

Votel would not commit to a timeline for the withdrawal. “I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date,” he said.

“The fact 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,” Votel added.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by US air and artillery strikes, are seeking to drive ISIS from this last area of territory but their advance has been slowed as they have encountered refugees fleeing the area.

A Defense Department Inspector General report published Monday said that “absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory.”

“We do have to keep pressure on this network, it is a resilient network. It does have certain components that are still left in it, although they are dispersed and disaggregated they have the capability of coming back together if we don’t,” Votel said.

Asked how the US would maintain such pressure after withdrawing the 2,000-plus troops currently in Syria, Votel said “that is an aspect of the ongoing planning that we are pursuing right now.”

“I won’t speculate publicly here about things we might do but there are certainly different ways we can do this, working with partners, working with our own capabilities to continue to keep pressure on this network which I think is absolutely vital,” he added.

Votel also said that “a key task” that the US was looking at was “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,” referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.a

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