Top general says he wasn't consulted before Trump announced Syria withdrawal

The top U.S. general in charge of military operations in the Middle East on Tuesday said he was not consulted prior to President TrumpDonald TrumpNew Capitol Police chief to take over Friday Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip MORE's announcement that he would withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.

“I was not aware of the specific announcement,” U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel said while appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Certainly we are aware that he has expressed a desire and an intent in the past to depart Syria.”

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Pressed further by Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate falling behind on infrastructure Hillicon Valley: Senators introduce bill to require some cyber incident reporting | UK citizen arrested in connection to 2020 Twitter hack | Officials warn of cyber vulnerabilities in water systems Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (I-Maine) on whether he was consulted ahead of Trump’s December announcement, Votel replied, “I was not consulted.”

In his testimony, Votel became the latest top official to warn that taking pressure off the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could allow the terrorist group to resurge.

Last week, the top U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that ISIS “will exploit any reduction in [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities.”

And on Monday, the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve, quoting an answer from Centcom, reported that ISIS “could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory” without continued pressure.

On Tuesday, Votel said he expects the physical territory of ISIS to be entirely retaken by the time U.S. forces withdraw but warned that does not mean the fight against the group will be over.

Votel said that ISIS’s territorial control is down to less than 20 square miles, down from a height of 34,000 square miles.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Asked by Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedSenate panel votes to make women register for draft Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (D-R.I.) whether he agrees that ISIS will have a “renewed vigor” without sustained pressure, Votel replied, “I do agree.”

Votel said the planning for a withdrawal includes determining ways to keep pressure on ISIS.

Asked by Reed whether that will include using Iraq as a launch-point for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, Votel would not specify in an unclassified setting.

“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,” he said. “I think that’s probably a discussion more appropriate for the closed session, but we certainly are looking at all options for how we might do that.”

Votel said the withdrawal is neither time-based nor conditions-based, saying he is not under pressure to withdraw by a specific date or been given specific conditions to meet before the withdrawal can happen. Rather, he said, he considers it an "additional task" to carry out as part of the anti-ISIS campaign.

"The fact is the president made a decision, and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw from Syria," Votel said. "And as we do that, we are going to do that in a very deliberate manner. We are going to do that in conjunction with our campaign plan."

"And we are going to consider things like protection of our partners, the Kurds. We are going to consider the concerns that Turkey has along their border. And we are going to consider how we keep pressure on ISIS. And all of that is taking place right now."

Updated at 11:37 a.m.