Central Com­mand chief urges Trump to sus­tain aid for Syr­i­ans.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

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 pres­i­den­t­elect. 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 self­styled 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 pres­i­den­t­elect 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mem­bers of the U.S.-trained Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces are mov­ing in on Raqqa to bat­tle the Is­lamic State. U.S. Central Com­mand chief Gen. Joseph Vo­tel says he hopes the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion can find a way to keep the pro­gram.

Vo­tel

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