U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel on Wednesday urged the incoming Trump administration to reverse course and continue an Obama administration program to train and equip Syrian moderate rebel forces as the campaign to retake Raqqa gathers force.
That would amount to a major about-face for the president-elect. During the election campaign, Mr. Trump sharply criticized the program and the handling of the Syrian conflict, saying U.S. officials “have no idea who these people are.”
The four-star general, speaking at an event sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, said the United States and its allies were reaping the benefits of a military training program in Syria.
The program is an integral part of President Obama’s overall strategy to eliminate the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, from Syria and the rest of the Middle East.
The 30,000-member Syrian Democratic Forces, trained and equipped by U.S. special operations advisers, are gaining ground toward Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, Gen. Votel said.
The assault on Raqqa will be one of the early major military challenges for the Trump administration in the fight against the Islamic State.
Asked if the president-elect’s national security team should retain the Syrian training program, Gen. Votel replied, “I hope we can find a way to do that.”
But Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed to end all U.S. military efforts to back Syrian militias battling the Islamic State and those fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” Mr. Trump said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“My attitude was, you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria,” the president-elect said.
Declining to comment on Mr. Trump’s opposition to the training program or speculate on what actions his administration may take, Gen. Votel said he and the rest of the U.S. military answer to the commander in chief.
“We will do exactly what he tells us” in Syria or elsewhere, he said.
American-trained rebels fighting under the Syrian Democratic Forces banner have advanced to within 18 miles of Raqqa, under the cover of U.S. and allied air power, the coalition’s second-in-command, British Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing Wednesday from Baghdad.
“The SDF continues to prove that they are quite capable of defeating Daesh wherever they encounter them on the battlefield,” said the general, using the derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State.
But Arab and Kurdish factions of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella coalition of militia groups picked by Washington to spearhead the assault on Raqqa, have begun peeling off from the main force as they inch closer to the city, U.S. defense officials have told The Washington Times.
“It’s a mess up there,” one U.S. defense official told The Times when describing early stages of the Raqqa campaign, which officially kicked off in October.
On Wednesday, Gen. Jones declined to provide a timeline for how soon the troops could breach Raqqa’s city limits.
“The key is that we defeat Daesh in both Iraq and Syria in a timely manner. Exactly how long that takes will depend on events on the ground,” Gen. Jones said. “I wouldn’t wish to put a timetable on it. I think that would be false to do so.”
Gen. Votel also declined to put a deadline on the Raqqa operation but noted that it would be a question of months, not weeks, when the Syrian Democratic Forces enter the city.
“We are going to move at the pace of our partner [forces],” he said.
But the four-star general noted that it took over two months for U.S.-backed Syrian militias to liberate the Islamic State-held city of Manbij, Gen. Votel said. “Raqqa and Mosul [in Iraq] are three times as big,” he said, hinting that the Raqqa operation could last through most of next year.