The commander of U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Russia and Iran, has essentially won the seven-year-old civil war that has killed more than 400,000, forced millions to flee, and spread sectarian strife throughout the region.
U.S. policy has been that Assad must step down or be ousted, but "from the civil war standpoint, it would appear that the regime is ascendant here," Army Gen. Joseph Votel said.
Russia and Iran have served as "key enablers" to allow regime forces to defeat a range of rebel groups, including those backed by the U.S., and only pockets of resistance remain in the besieged area of Ghouta, east of Damascus, and in Idlib to the north, Votel said.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, asked, "Is it too strong a statement that, with Russia and Iran's help, Assad has won the civil war in Syria?"
Votel responded: "I don't think that is too strong of a statement. I think they have provided him the wherewithal to be ascendant at this point."
When asked if it is still U.S. policy that "Assad must go," Votel said, "I don't know that that's our particular policy at this particular point."
In the long term, Assad's victory in Syria will leave the U.S. to contend with increased threats to Israel and Jordan from Iran's support of Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, he said.
Votel testified with Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, on the challenges both face -- Votel in the Mideast and Afghanistan, and Waldhauser on the entire African continent.
Waldhauser said he knows of no plans to move AfriCom's headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany, to Africa and noted that he operates with no dedicated forces, relying on troops "allocated" from other combatant commands.
As he had in testimony to the House last week, Waldhauser said the Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation into the Niger ambush last Oct. 4 that killed four members of the Army's Third Special Forces Group has been completed and forwarded to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
He gave no indication of what the findings are and again gave no timeline for the investigation's release, but said the families of the fallen would be briefed first. He pledged to give Congress a "comprehensive" public review of the findings at a later date.
On Afghanistan, Votel said part of the new strategy against the Taliban was borrowed from the campaign in Iraq and Syria that has now liberated 98 percent of the territory once controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In Iraq and Syria, U.S. airpower was focused against drying up ISIS revenue streams, mainly from captured oil wells, Votel said.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. is now committed to attacking centers of the poppy trade that provides much of the Taliban's funding and cutting off the export of heroin, he said.
"This is a lesson learned from Iraq and Syria, where we got serious about going after the funding streams that supported ISIS," Votel said in reference to operations in Afghanistan. "We started to see an immediate impact, so that is exactly the intention."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.