Clash of ideas on what’s next for US troops in Syria

Clash of ideas on what’s next for US troops in Syria

U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel, talking about Syria and Iraq at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday (U.S. Institute of Peace screen shot)

WASHINGTON — The commander-in-chief said the U.S. will soon be getting out of Syria while the commander on the ground said the U.S. needs to stay.

In a whirlwind Tuesday of public discourse of where the U.S. military may stay, leave and then go, the dual track of the Syrian song played loudly through the Pentagon, Congress and those aboard with an interest in the region.

Speaking at a day-long forum about the future of Syria and Iraq at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Gen. Joseph Votel said the military needs to stay in both countries in some capacity to ensure ISIS cannot re-energize. Votel is commander of U.S. Central Command and the Middle East region is part of that domain.

“Of course there is a military role in this,” Votel said, via telecast. He said the road ahead — training local security forces, restarting economic livelihoods, reconstructing civilian authorities — is critical in order to truly stabilize the area and create a framework for long-term peace and security.

The panel Votel was part of was called “Fraught Terrain: Stabilizing Iraq and Syria after ISIS.”

Almost at the same time, the president was restating his idea — first raised last week — of removing troops from Syria.

“We were very successful against ISIS. We’ll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously,” Trump said during a televised press conference with the presidents of the three Baltic nations.

The U.S. has between 2,000 and 3,000 troops in Syria, the Pentagon has said.

The starkly different outlooks reflect and presage what could be a fierce debate that could define allies’ trust in the U.S. as well as the stability of the region, experts said.

“We are in Syria to defeat ISIS,” Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said, sitting on the same panel as Votel. “That is our mission and our mission isn’t over and we are going to complete that mission.”

Some analysts said a U.S. departure would abandon allies once again, trigger a renewed flow of refugees, and give Russia and Iran a free hand in Syria while bolstering the Assad regime.

However, others said the U.S. could pull its ground troops, continue to provide air support, ramp up diplomatic efforts with Turkey and Saudi Arabia while following the pattern of support provided to Iraqi Kurds after the first Gulf War.

One irony is that the president’s thoughts on a Syrian troop withdrawal are possibly driven by the military’s success outpacing its own timetable.

At the forum, Vote said the military is between six and eight months ahead of their projections on routing ISIS and securing parts of eastern Syria, where U.S. troops are deployed. The Pentagon has repeatedly said how ISIS has been driven from up to 95 percent of the territory it once held.

However, when, if and how that last ground will be retaken has been elusive, in part because of other factors within Syria.

In the meantime, the song in the Pentagon today remains the one that landed number 228 on Rolling Stones magazine’s top 500 greatest songs of all time — “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

The song was released in May 1992 by the rock group The Clash. It was the lead song on their album titled “Combat Rock.”

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