TAMPA — In March, President Donald Trump said he would be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria "very soon." But they’re still there, and will stay there, to defeat what’s left of the so-called Islamic State, says the man in charge of military efforts in the region.
Despite the commander-in-chief’s comments, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said it didn’t require much pushback to convince Trump to stay the course. The head of U.S. Central Command spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Monday from his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
"I think the President has been very clear that he wants to complete the defeat of ISIS, so that is certainly what we have been focused on," Votel said. "At the same time, we have to make sure others have bought into the success here. We want to increase the focus on Syria and stabilizing the area and move forward with a political solution."
He said that "while a lot of terrain has been liberated and taken back from them, there are still pockets that have to be addressed."
But given the complexity of Syria, keeping the U.S. mission there focused on those goals is easier said than done — especially with the specter of Iran looming over the region.
For the past seven years, Syria has been destroyed by an ongoing, multi-layered civil war against the regime of Bashir al-Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia. A year ago, the U.S. struck Iranian-backed forces approaching a U.S. commando base in Syria, called At Tanf, along the Jordanian border.
Iran "represents a long-term destabilizing influence" in the region, Votel said, by backing Assad, conducting cyber operations in the region, supporting the Lebanese jihadi group Hizballah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, threatening maritime movements in the Persian Gulf region and sabre rattling against the Sunni Gulf states.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have only increased since Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear weapons deal and the administration’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric.
At a Monday morning speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran "will never again dominate the Middle East" and that if they try to restart their nuclear program, "they would have bigger problems than they have ever had before."
Those problems, presumably, would be dealt with by the forces commanded by Votel.
The general — who oversees a 20-nation region stretching from Egypt to Pakistan that includes Iran — said he hadn’t had time to listen to Pompeo’s remarks. But Votel said that "we have enduring national interests in that part of the world and Iranian destabilizing activities are putting all that at risk."
When asked what message he would deliver to the Iranians, Votel was blunt: "We will defend ourselves."
While the United States has made it "very, very clear" to the Iranians that coalition operations in Syria are aimed at ISIS and not them, Votel said, he added: "We have the right and the obligation to defend ourselves … and if there are others in the area that want to take actions that threaten our forces, or U.S. or coalition partners, we are going to defend ourselves."
As if the Syria situation were not complex enough with Iranians, Russians, Turks and several jihadi groups being supported as proxies by the big powers, the increasing tensions between Iran and Israel have only added to Votel’s laundry list of regional woes.
In recent weeks, the Iranians have moved equipment near the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on the Syrian border. Israel, in turn, has stepped up its military actions in Syria, attacking bases where Iranian troops and equipment are based. The attacks have killed several Iranians, and Iran responded by lobbing missiles into Israel.
On top of that, Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, coupled with Israel’s deadly response to protests in Gaza, killing dozens of Palestinians, have stoked additional regional tensions.
"Certainly the rise of tensions between Iran and Israel are something to be cognizant of," said Votel, who would not say whether Israel, which is not in the CentCom region, contacts the command before launching attacks in Syria.
In the wake of the embassy move, Votel said Marine forces in the CentCom region were called on to bolster embassy security elsewhere in the region in case of a violent response.
"I don’t know that I would call it any uptick" in violence or threats against U.S. assets, personnel or allies in the region as the result of the embassy move and the violence in Gaza, Votel said. "This is a volatile region. There is a lot going on and this is a particularly tension-filled time."
Last month, Votel made his first visit to Israel, which was purposely placed under the U.S. European Command region to avoid conflict with America’s Arab partners. While there, he met with Israeli military officials as well as EuCom counterparts to "share our assessment of the common situation that we are dealing with."
A wider Iran-Israel conflict would have devastating consequences beyond just those two parties. The Iranians have the capability of striking U.S. and partner forces stationed at bases across the region as well as Gulf allies.
"Any conflict in the region would be dangerous," said Votel. "We are trying to avert that."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman