The top commander of U.S. forces in Syria made the case Tuesday for American troops to remain in the country at the same time President Donald Trump doubled down on his argument for pulling them out.
"The hard part is in front of us" in Syria as the U.S. seeks to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State, aid in resettling refugees and encourage negotiations to end the seven-year-old civil war, said Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command. "Of course, there is a military role in this."
While Votel argued for staying in remarks at a U.S. Institute of Peace forum, Trump used a White House news conference to elaborate on his statement last week that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria "very soon."
"As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS. We've almost completed that task, and we'll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we'll do," Trump said at a joint news conference with leaders of the three Baltic states.
"We have nothing, nothing except death and destruction" to show for U.S. military efforts in the Middle East, he said.
"So it's time. It's time," Trump said. "We were very successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it's time to come back home, and we're thinking about that very seriously.
"I want to get out," he said, echoing comments he made last week. "I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation."
Trump's stance could put him on a collision course with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has lobbied for a continued U.S. military presence in Syria and Iraq.
The president was also at odds with Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford in the long deliberations over a new strategy for Afghanistan before Trump last August endorsed bolstering U.S. forces there.
He has since frequently acknowledged that his initial instinct was to order a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At the U.S. Institute for Peace, Votel was joined by representatives of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in stressing that U.S. troops are still needed in Syria to help stabilize the region and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"At this point in, we're probably six to eight months ahead of where we anticipated being" in the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Votel said. "The military success we've had is quite extraordinary," but much remains to be done.
In Iraq, the U.S. military needs to aid the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in consolidating their gains and in training new units to police borders and prevent new outbursts of sectarian infighting, he said.
In Syria, the task ahead is more daunting, Votel said. The presence of Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces add to the challenges faced by the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground.
In addition, the drive by Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies in northeastern Syria against Kurdish enclaves has drawn off elements of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defend against Turkey's "Operation Olive Branch," he said.
"It's slowed down our operations against ISIS" in the southeastern desert areas near Syria's border with Iraq, Votel said.
The U.S. needs to address "the long-term issues of reconstruction, getting people back in their homes," which are often riddled with improvised explosive devices left behind by ISIS, he said.
Votel and Brett McGurk, the State Department's special envoy for Iraq and Syria, did not directly comment on Trump's withdrawal remarks, but Votel said, "Stabilizing these areas, consolidating those gains, getting people back in their homes -- there is a military role in all of this, certainly in the stabilization phase.
"I very much see us in that position right now," he said, but McGurk confirmed that Trump already had ordered a freeze of about $200 million in aid meant to fund recovery efforts in Syria.
McGurk said the aid cutoff is part of a broader effort by Trump to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely. "As we undertake this review, it is not hindering our work in the field," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.