Gen. Joseph Votel: “It would not have been my military advice” to withdraw US troops from Syria


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Challenging both Donald Trump and Turkey, the commander of US forces in the Middle East has said that Washington should continue arming Kurdish-led forces in Syria, even after any American troop withdrawal.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said of the Syrian Democratic Forces, “As long as they are fighting against ISIS and continue to keep pressure on them, I think it would seem to me to be in our interest to continue to provide the means for them to do that.”

On December 14, Trump impulsively decided on the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The American force has supported the SDF since its creation in autumn 2015 to push back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the SDF, as “terrorists” who are part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. Erdoğan has demanded that the US not only halt arms supply to the YPG, but to ensure the handover of all weapons already provided.

The Turkish President is also pressing for the withdrawal of the YPG from a “safe zone”, 32-km deep along the Turkish-Syrian border across the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Cezire. The US has resisted the plan, fearing Turkish attacks on the Kurdish area — about 27% of Syria — and vaguely spoken of its oversight of a safe zone with airpower.

During a trip to Oman, Votel avoided those issues as he said US assistance to change after the SDF takes the final pocket of ISIS territory, near the Iraqi border, and faces dispersed Islamic State fighters and guerrilla warfare.

A White House official declined to comment about assistance to the SDF, while speaking generally about a commitment to an anti-ISIS coalition.

Trump’s withdrawal order forced the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.

Votel said on Friday, “It would not have been my military advice at that particular time.”