U.S. Military Commander Warns That Islamic State May Quickly Regroup

WASHINGTON — The Islamic State could stage a resurgence in Syria once the Pentagon withdraws its troops, the head of the United States Central Command told a Senate panel on Tuesday in a bleak warning that President Trump’s assertions of victory may be fleeting.

The commander, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who oversees military operations in the Middle East, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State still controlled around 20 square miles of territory in Syria. That is a steep drop from the group’s pinnacle of 34,000 square miles in 2014 and has been used by the president to bolster his case that American troops and their allies have largely defeated the militant Sunni extremist group.

Mr. Trump has indicated that he is ready to declare victory in Syria, a war that was certain to be featured in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

General Votel’s comments came during a testy hearing in which a succession of senators from both parties questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. It was yet another instance of top national security leaders diverging from the president on the withdrawal, a decision that led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in December.

The remarks also came just a week after the release of an annual intelligence assessment of threats facing the United States that diverged sharply from Mr. Trump’s statements on a range of issues, including North Korea, Russia and Syria.

“It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed,” General Votel said.

He said that “hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against a now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”

General Votel is set to retire this spring, and will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. For the first time, he publicly confirmed on Tuesday that the president’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria was as much of a surprise to him as it was to the many men and women in the military who have fought the Islamic State alongside Kurdish and international allies since 2014.

“I was not consulted,” General Votel said under questioning by Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Within minutes, Mr. King’s office emailed a video of the exchange to reporters to highlight what was described as “military brass blindsided by Syria withdrawal announcement.”

Many Republicans in Congress also oppose the withdrawal plans. On Monday, the Senate approved legislation that opposes an abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, warning that such a move could destabilize the region and lead to larger roles for both Russia and Iran. The legislation is largely symbolic.

Also on Monday, the Pentagon’s internal watchdog agency concluded in a report that the Islamic State was already regrouping in Iraq. The report, from the inspector general’s office, said that unless there was sustained pressure, the Islamic State “could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory.”

The extremist group will also most likely try to portray the American withdrawal as a victory, Pentagon officials have warned.

In his testimony, General Votel also diverged from his commander in chief on the role of American troops deployed to Iraq.

Mr. Trump, during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said he wanted American troops to remain in Iraq to “watch Iran” — a sudden announcement that angered Iraqi leaders and surprised the Defense Department.

American military officials said they could not explain Mr. Trump’s claims that American forces in Iraq could take a leading role in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program or other suspicious activities.

Asked by Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, whether the American military focus in Iraq had shifted from the Islamic State to Iran, General Votel replied, “It has not, senator.”

He said that Central Command “remains very focused on the reason that the government of Iraq asked us to come there, and that is focusing on the defeat of ISIS and now preventing the resurgence of that particular organization.”

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