By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East flew into Iraq on Sunday for talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials expected to focus on ensuring that Islamic State cannot stage a resurgence after U.S. troops withdraw from neighboring Syria.
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, made no remarks to reporters upon landing in Iraq, where he was expected to get battlefield briefings on the final push to retake the remnants of Islamic State’s once vast territory in Syria.
Votel was also expected to discuss with officials in Baghdad what impact the U.S. withdrawal might have on Iraq, where Islamic State has already shifted to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics after losing all its territory.
Votel has said he does not expect President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of more than 2,000 troops from Syria to significantly alter U.S. troop levels in Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 forces. Those force numbers would stay “more or less steady,” he said.”We will want to make sure that we get the right capabilities on the ground to support the Iraqis going forward,” Votel told reporters traveling with him last week. “But I don’t necessarily think that will result in an expanded footprint by the United States or by the coalition forces.”
THREAT OF RESURGENCE
Trump’s surprise decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria confounded his national security team and led to the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. It also shocked U.S. allies and sent generals like Votel scrambling to carry out the pullout in a way that best preserves as many gains as possible.
Islamic State still poses a threat in Iraq and some U.S. officials believe that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may be hiding in Iraq. Baghdadi has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
The Pentagon’s Inspector General said in a report Islamic State remained an active insurgent group and was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than Syria.
“Absent sustained (counter-terrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory,” the report said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
In an interview on Friday, Votel told Reuters he would recommend continued arms and aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as needed, provided the Kurdish-led fighters keep the pressure on Islamic State and help prevent its resurgence.
Votel has said Islamic State may still count tens of thousands of fighters, dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, with enough leaders and resources to present a menacing insurgency in the months ahead.
Iraq’s military has already shifted how it combats the group, moving away from major combat operations to what Votel calls “wide-area” operations. The U.S. military has also modified the way that it supports Iraqi security forces.
“We’ve adjusted our footprint as well, and where we go and where we are best located to continue to advise and assist them with their operations,” Votel said last week.
“We’ve made some changes in terms of where we are so we can be in the best locations.”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)