WASHINGTON — The outgoing head of U.S. Central Command said he was neither advised nor consulted by President Donald Trump in advance of the declaration that U.S. forces would be rapidly withdrawn from Syria.
Gen. Joseph Votel, who will retire this spring as commander of Central Command, also said the Pentagon has no truly accurate estimates of how many ISIS members remain in Syria.
Votel was testifying Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Central Command’s jurisdiction includes the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Votel told committee members he disagrees with the withdrawal decision and concurs with recent Pentagon reports saying that ISIS will rise again should the U.S exit without establishing a counter-insurgency force.
He said ISIS holds only about 20 squares miles of territory in Syria, defended by about 150 to 200 fighters. That redoubt also includes family members of the ISIS fighters and civilians, he said.
However, Votel said it is the Pentagon’s very loose estimate that at least 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS members “are geographically dispersed across the open areas” of Syria.
“We don’t fully know [the number of ISIS fighters],” Votel told the committee. “We don’t have it with any specific accuracy.”
Votel also told the committee that neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates has yet reimbursed the U.S. for $331 million in the costs of fuel and airtime to refuel their planes engaged in the war in Yemen. That non-payment was discovered last December when the two nations were given 90 days to pay.
The commander said he has not been told if there are any other instances of outstanding payments.
Votel urged caution in cutting U.S. ties with Saudi’s war in Yemen, as Congress is contemplating. That decision would remove “the leverage that we have to continue to influence them, which we have used in a positive manner” and endanger U.S. interests in the region, he said.
As for reports that Saudi Arabia and the UAE illegally transferred U.S.-supplied weapons to other parties, Votel said, ”We have not authorized Saudi Arabia or the Emirates to re-transfer any of this equipment to other parties on the ground in Yemen. I think we have to look more closely at the allegations in this particular situation to find out what happened.”
Votel did say that the Pentagon has access to a database of all Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen. That suggests the Pentagon could track bombs that hit civilian targets — an ability that Pentagon officials said last year was not available.
The Pentagon also is considering moving F-22 fighters and B-1B bombers out of the Middle East theater, a move that would drastically change the dynamic of the U.S.’s ability to conduct military operations in a zone where three wars are occurring.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.,) revealed the possible move during the Tuesday hearing.
Both aircraft are the latest generation in wide deployment by the Pentagon and have been the vanguard of air action in the Middle East-South Asia conflicts.
Votel said he would provide further details when the committee met in closed session in the afternoon — a response he gave often to senators’ questions during the public hearing, which lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.