Votel in Iraq to Discuss Long-Term ISIS Threat
Commander of US Central Command Joseph Votel, who is overseeing US forces in the Middle East, flew into Iraq on Sunday for talks with US and Iraqi officials.
Talks are expected to focus on ensuring that ISIS cannot stage a resurgence after US troops withdraw from Syria.
Votel made no remarks to reporters upon landing in Iraq, where he was expected to get battlefield briefings on the final push to retake the remnants of ISIS’s once vast territory in Syria.
He was also expected to discuss with officials in Baghdad what impact the US withdrawal might have on Iraq, where ISIS has already shifted to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics after losing all its territory, according to Reuters.
The US General has earlier said he does not expect President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of more than 2,000 troops from Syria to significantly alter US troop levels in Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 forces. Those force numbers would stay “more or less steady,” he said.
“We will want to make sure that we get the right capabilities on ground to support the Iraqis going forward,” Votel told reporters traveling with him last week.
“But I don’t necessarily think that will result in an expanded footprint by the United States or by the coalition forces.”
Trump’s surprise decision in December to withdraw US troops from Syria confounded his national security team and led to the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis.
It also shocked US allies and sent generals like Votel scrambling to carry out the pullout in a way that best preserves as many gains as possible.
ISIS still poses a threat in Iraq and some US officials believe that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may be hiding in Iraq.
Baghdadi has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
The Pentagon’s Inspector General said in a report that ISIS remained an active insurgent group and was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than Syria.
“Absent sustained (counter-terrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory,” the report said.
In an interview on Friday, Votel told Reuters he would recommend continued arms and aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as needed, provided the Kurdish-led fighters keep the pressure on ISIS and help prevent its resurgence.
He added that ISIS may still count tens of thousands of fighters, dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, with enough leaders and resources to present a menacing insurgency in the months ahead.
Iraq’s military has already shifted how it combats the group, moving away from major combat operations to what Votel calls “wide-area” operations.
The US military has also modified the way that it supports Iraqi security forces.
“We’ve adjusted our footprint as well, and where we go and where we are best located to continue to advise and assist them with their operations,” Votel said last week.
“We’ve made some changes in terms of where we are, so we can be in the best locations,” he stressed.