Gen. Joseph Votel, the top US commander for the Middle East and Central Asia is embarking on what should be a two-week farewell tour as he prepares to step down after a nearly 40-year career.
But as head of US Central Command, he leaves under a different commander in chief than when he began the job, and after controversial orders from the White House to withdraw troops from Syria and begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan.
Votel took the helm at Centcom under President Obama as the US was urgently ramping up the war against ISIS and struggling to keep the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan in check. It came at a time when Iraqi security forces were failing to fight on their own, abandoning key areas like Ramadi, and there was serious concern even Baghdad could fall.
Votel now leaves office as President Donald Trump prepares to announce a victory of sorts. The administration is expected to announce in the coming days that US-backed fighters and US-led airstrikes have succeeded in driving ISIS out of all the territory in Syria it once controlled. This now leaves Votel to carry out the President’s order to remove more than 2,000 troops from Syria, even as concern grows that the SDF fighters the US has backed in northern Syria could get attacked by Turkish forces that see them as tied to Kurdish terrorist organizations.
In a comment before Congress that drew worldwide attention, Votel publicly acknowledged he had not been “consulted” about the President’s drawdown decision.
“I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly we are aware that he had expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria,” Votel said during a Tuesday hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“So you weren’t consulted before that decision was announced?” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked him.
“We were not, I was not consulted,” Votel responded.
He also stated that “the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over, and our mission has not changed,” and would not commit to a timeline for the withdrawal. “I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date,” he said.
“The fact the President made a decision and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw forces from Syria and as we do that we’re going to do that in a very deliberate manner,” Votel added.
He will have to find ways to reassure SDF commanders in his final weeks in office that the US is not abandoning them.
Votel’s trip will focus on meeting key foreign military and government leaders across the region to thank them for their support for the US-led coalition. But it also comes at a time when many in the region are concerned the Trump Administration could be gearing up for action against Iran. Votel has been a constant voice warning against Iran’s efforts to expand its influence and maintain a position in Syria that facilitates their ability to ship weapons to Hezbollah to threaten Israel.
But President Trump recently caught important Iraqi allies by surprise when he suggested the US would maintain a base inside Iraq for the purposes of keeping an eye on Iran. The comments provoked a deeply unfavorable reaction from the Iranian government which would have to agree to any Iran military mission being conducted from its sovereign territory.
Iraqi President Bahram Salih said that the US had not asked permission to have forces on the ground “watch Iran,” noting that “the US presence in Iraq is a part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific task which is to combat terrorism.”
“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih said during a forum in Baghdad.
Votel is headed now for a scheduled retirement after a 39-year Army career serving in some of the highest-ranking and most sensitive assignments. Before taking charge of US Central Command, he served as head of the US Special Operations Command and before that as head of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command which oversees some of the most highly classified combat operations for US special operations units. With several tours in combat, Votel has developed critical relationships with counterparts across the Middle East that younger upcoming generals may not have as combat operations wind down.
But he also leaves with many missions still controversial and uncertain. Following a CNN report by Nima Elbagir, Centcom is now investigating how US supplied weapons and armored vehicles were allegedly transferred in Yemen to possible Iranian backed and al Qaeda-related militias. And President Trump has made clear he also wants to draw down troops in Afghanistan, again raising concerns by some US commanders that Afghan forces will be ready to look after their own security. One positive indicator however, is the US is talking directly to the Taliban, although it has not yet brought in the Afghan government to the talks.
But perhaps most telling as Votel prepares to step down in the coming weeks is the still looming strength of terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. The US intelligence community has warned in recent weeks that thousands of ISIS fighters have gone to ground, in Syria and Iraq but still retain a capability to communicate, plan and carry out attacks.
At the same latest US intelligence assessment on al Qaeda concluded that senior leaders are “strengthening the network’s global command structure,” as part of its effort to inspire and encourage attacks against the West.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.