Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, Army Gen. Joseph Votel did not sound like a guy who was planning on pulling American forces out of Syria.
"We are in Syria to fight ISIS," Votel said about the Sunni jihadi group. "That is our mission and it is not over. We are going to complete that mission."
As the commander of U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Votel oversees U.S. military efforts in Syria, where there are about 2,000 troops along with Iraq, Afghanistan and 17 other nations in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.
Votel’s statements came five days after President Donald Trump expressed his desire to leave the war-torn nation "very soon" and the same day Trump instructed U.S. forces to prepare for withdrawal from Syria while maintaining troops who will continue to train local forces, according to the Washington Post.
But that statement was clarified Wednesday by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
"The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated," she said in a statement. The U.S, expects "countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges."
CentCom officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
While there is no date set, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria has created concern for several reasons.
Most important to CentCom is clearing out the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria and creating circumstances where stability will replace the chaos. (The other implications, particularly regarding Iranian influence in the region, will be a topic here for future discussion).
Repeating a theme that he has expressed in the past, including while we were together in Baghdad two years ago, Votel talked about how in many ways, defeating ISIS is the easy part in Syria, as it was in Iraq.
"A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years but the hard part I think is in front of us," Votel told the audience. "And that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that have to be done."
Votel would never publicly disagree with his boss. But there are others who will.
To Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel from Riverview, "pulling out of Syria is like deja vu all over again."
A complete withdrawal "would put the U.S. and the west at more risk," said Mann, whose time in uniform included helping set up a program in Afghanistan to help local forces stand up for themselves to create stability.
"Military defeat of ISIS on the Syrian battlefield does not necessarily equate to defeat of the group," he said. "Left to their own devices — without U.S. presence — ISIS or some other international terror group will likely emerge in Syria again."
Author of a book on stability and other issues called Game Changers, Mann said a complete pullout would have lasting negative implications.
Absent a decades-long commitment, ISIS will refit and regroup for future attacks, there will be unsupervised militias that we trained and equipped moving around on the battlefield and America’s reputation for abandoning allies — in this case the Syrian Kurds — will be amplified.
Indigenous allies, the backbone of U.S. military strategy, "will be less likely to work with Special Forces advisers and others who ask them to stand up against extremists in places like Africa and other emerging hotspots," Mann warned.
The Pentagon last week announced the death of a soldier supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.
Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, 36, of Austin, Texas, died March 30 in Manbij, Syria as a result of injuries when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near his patrol. The incident is under investigation.
Dunbar was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Ft Bragg, North Carolina. There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman