The general overseeing US forces in the Middle East said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the pull-out of most US troops from Syria.
“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
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“There is no pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel said.
Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops in Syria in December and declared the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) defeated. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and US politicians and was a factor in James Mattis’s resignation as defence secretary.
But Trump was persuaded by advisers that about 200 US troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.
About 200 other US troops will remain at the US military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.
Thousands of people could still be left inside ISIL’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.
The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by ISIL, which once controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria.
On Wednesday, a senior SDF commander said that about 400 ISIL fighters were captured as they tried to leave the enclave. He said hundreds of others surrendered from the last shred of territory they control in the village of Baghouz in Deir Az Zor province.
Votel said he believed that ISIL fighters being evacuated from the remaining territory controlled by the armed group were largely “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised”. He said the armed group was waiting “for the right time to resurge”.
“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” Votel added.