U.S. President Donald Trump sits during a meeting with Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s emir, not pictured, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Alex Edelman/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump's Syria Pullout Risks Islamic State Return, General Says

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria won support from the top U.S. general in the region, although he warned Islamic State may try to reassert influence after losing its hold on territory in the war-ravaged country.

“If the major actors and their proxies become embroiled in a competition for influence in Syria, this may create space for ISIS remnants or other terrorist groups to reform or reconstitute,” General Joseph L. Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, said in a report Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel all have a stake in Syria’s future.

Trump's Syria Pullout Risks Islamic State Return, General Says

The general offered that caution hours before Trump’s State of the Union address to Congress, in which the president may boast that the U.S. and allies have eliminated Islamic State’s “caliphate,” its hold on a huge swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Under questioning from senators, Votel acknowledged that he wasn’t consulted before Trump’s announcement that he planned to bring U.S. troops home from Syria “now.” While Votel effectively endorsed Trump’s decision, he emphasized a methodical approach that the president has increasingly embraced.

“We are adjusting our military posture in Syria, planning and executing a deliberate, safe, and professional withdrawal of personnel and equipment while preserving sufficient power in the region to ensure that we can continue to destroy remnants of ISIS fighters and ensure it does not return,” Votel said in the report issued as he testified before the Senate panel.

‘Bipartisan Concern’

But lawmakers expressed what Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi called “bipartisan concern” about “the cost of getting it wrong as we withdraw from both Syria and Afghanistan.”

Trump has indicated he wants to bring home some or all of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and a U.S. envoy is having talks with Taliban insurgents even though they refuse to deal with the country’s government. The discussions have focused on the U.S. withdrawing its troops in return for Taliban assurances that terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State won’t be allowed to operate from Afghanistan.

Wicker cited a warning from former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who wrote in the Washington Post that the talks with the Taliban resemble the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War. “Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender,” Crocker wrote.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire also said she’s concerned about the U.S. talking with the Taliban “without the engagement of the Afghan government" and about the risk that women would lose their rights and face oppression as they did when the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan.

Votel said the current talks are an effort to put together a “framework” for eventual negotiations that would include the Afghan government, which is being kept informed on the talks.

Iran’s Role

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia elicited answers from Votel rebutting Trump’s assertions that Iran is behind all of the troubles in the Middle East. Votel said he’s “not aware” that any U.S. intelligence officials see Iran as a “wonderful kindergarten,” as Trump suggested in a CBS News interview that aired on Sunday.

Votel also rebuffed the president’s assertion in the same interview that the U.S. will hold a base in Iraq because “I want to be able to watch Iran,” a rationale that has provoked an uproar in Afghanistan. The general said the U.S. is “there at the invitation” of Iraq for the purpose of defeating Islamic State.

In his wide-ranging report on Central Command’s challenges in the Middle East, Votel, who is within months of retirement, also noted Saudi Arabia’s reduced influence.

“High-profile civilian casualty incidents on behalf of the Coalition in Yemen and international backlash resulting from the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi have damaged Saudi Arabia’s international standing,” he said.

Under questioning from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential contender, Votel said that “we have no observations of our own” to confirm an Associated Press report of torture and abuse in detention centers in Yemen operated by the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. is part of a coalition in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the U.S.

“Turning a blind eye is not acceptable,” Warren said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.