Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs

Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


Tonight, all eyes will be on President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE as he delivers his State of the Union address. Click here to check out The Hill's live coverage. As for the rest of the day's defense news...


TOPLINE: The top U.S. general in charge of military operations in the Middle East on Tuesday said he was not consulted prior to President Trump'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."

Pressed further by Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing MORE (I-Maine) on whether he was consulted ahead of Trump's December announcement, Votel replied, "I was not consulted."

New warning on ISIS: 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 regain strength.

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.

Votel's input: 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.

He 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."

Calls for keeping pressure on ISIS: Asked by Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators want Air Force probe into allegations military housing provider faked records Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week 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 provide details 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."

Senate breaks from Trump's Syria policy: The Senate passed legislation on Tuesday breaking with Trump's Syria policy, voting 77-23 to send the legislation to the House that includes a provision warning Trump against a "precipitous" withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

It also asks the administration to certify that certain conditions have been met "for the enduring defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan."

The bill was approved after it overcame a filibuster earlier this week. 


ALL EYES ON STATE OF THE UNION: Don't expect Trump to make a national emergency declaration tonight.

The president, who will deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday, is facing mounting political problems that have besieged his administration.

Trump has hinted that he may declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress and build a border wall unless the group of lawmakers can come up with funding for a wall. Current funding for a quarter of the government is set to run out on Feb. 15.

But GOP lawmakers have urged Trump to sideline any potential plans to declare a national emergency during his State of the Union address.

Slowly crawling back: The president's approval numbers are just now starting to show signs of recovery from the devastating hit he took during the record-long government shutdown that emboldened Democrats and exposed divisions within the GOP.

The sting of the shutdown has been exacerbated by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerHouse impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE's investigation into his presidential campaign's ties to Russia, with the probe nearing a boiling point.

With all that taken together, Republicans are saying now is not the time to play the national emergency card.

GOP Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week MORE (N.D.) said Tuesday that he also wants Trump to wait until the funding deadline before broaching the issue of declaring a national emergency.

Cramer said he agreed with Trump's assessment that there "is a crisis" at the border but pushed back on immediately declaring an emergency, saying, "We have until Feb. 15 to get our job done as members of Congress, we ought to do it."

A human wall: Trump on Tuesday continued to push for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying his administration is prepared to "build a Human Wall if necessary." 

"Tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our Southern Border," Trump tweeted. "We have sent additional military. We will build a Human Wall if necessary."

The Pentagon announced on Sunday that nearly 4,000 additional U.S. troops would be deployed to the southern border to assist Customs and Border Protection. 

And The Hill's Jordan Fabian wrote about five things to watch for during Trump's speech.


US, SOUTH KOREA REACH AGREEMENT ON SHARING TROOP COSTS: The U.S. and South Korea have reached an agreement "in principle" on sharing the cost of U.S. troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula.

President Trump had announced in June that he would cancel joint military exercises in South Korea because they were too expensive and the U.S. had to foot most of the bill.

Under a 2014 deal that expired in 2018, Seoul agreed to pay $848 million each year to support about 28,500 troops in South Korea. 

A State Department spokesman told Reuters on Monday that a new agreement had been reached.

What we know so far: "The United States and the Republic of Korea have reached an agreement in principle on a new Special Measures Agreement," the official said. "Both sides are committed to working out remaining technical issues as quickly as possible."

Another official told CNN that South Korea would increase its contributions to almost $1 billion to aid the troops' deployment.

South Korean news agency Yonhap cited a diplomatic source in the country as saying that Seoul's offer to pay $1 billion would last a year rather than five years for the previous agreement.

The background: Trump has excoriated allies in Europe and Asia for what he says are inadequate contributions to shared defense, specifically mentioning NATO contributions and money from South Korea.

Roughly 70 percent of Seoul's funds for the troops cover salaries of nearly 9,000 South Korean employees who assist the U.S. military, according to Reuters.

No plans to remove troops: Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative on North Korea, said last week there had been no discussions with either North or South Korea regarding troop withdrawals from the Korean Peninsula.

"We are not involved in any diplomatic discussion -- full stop -- that would suggest this tradeoff. It has never been discussed," he said.



Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism Andrew Knaggs, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict Owen West both speak at the 30th Annual SO/LIC Symposium & Exhibition, beginning at 7 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will speak on maintaining maritime superiority 9 a.m. at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. 

Under Secretary of Defense for policy John Rood will speak about the 2019 U.S. Missile Defense Review at 9:45 a.m. at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. 


Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action Prisons chief: FBI investigating whether 'criminal enterprise' played role in Epstein death MORE (R-Texas) will speak on the Senate's role in foreign policy at 10 a.m. at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. 

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on evaluating the Defense Department's counterterrorism approach at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. 

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a business meeting at 10 a.m. in Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 342. 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on U.S. policy in the Arabian Peninsula at 10 a.m. in Rayburn 2172. 



-- The Hill: US investigating whether Saudi Arabia gave third parties American-made weapons: report

-- The Hill: UN monitors: North Korea working to protect nuclear missiles ahead of second US summit

-- The Hill: Russia racing to develop new missile systems to counter US by 2021

-- The Hill: State Dept. asks scientists to study mystery acoustic attacks in Cuba: report

-- The Hill: Migrant caravan arrives at town on Texas border

-- The Hill: Report urges government, private firms collaborate to prevent fallout from major cyberattack

-- The Hill: Opinion: Three real emergencies at our southern border and how to fix them

-- The Hill: Opinion: In negotiating peace in Afghanistan, let's not overlook human rights