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 John TrumpButtigieg on Mueller report: 'Politically, I'm not sure it will change much' Sarah Sanders addresses false statements detailed in Mueller report: 'A slip of the tongue' Trump to visit Japan in May to meet with Abe, new emperor 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 Stanley KingHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Collins receives more donations from Texas fossil fuel industry than from Maine residents 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 ReedJohn (Jack) Francis Reed Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal Barr says 'spying' took place on Trump campaign 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.