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Former top U.S. military official in Mideast on the outlook for peace in Syria

The war in Syria rages on, with President Bashar al-Assad's regime continuing its onslaught of airstrikes in northwest Idlib province -- the last rebel stronghold. Stephanie Sy reports and talks to retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who until recently oversaw U.S. military operations in the Middle East, about the outlook for a “political solution” in Syria, stability in Afghanistan and the threat of ISIS.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 18 years, and the American role in Syria continues to evolve, with no clear end in sight.

    Until recently, retired General Joseph Votel oversaw those conflicts and others as head of the U.S. military's Middle East operations.

    Stephanie Sy speaks with Votel.

    But, first, she has an update on the conflict in Syria.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    From the air and on the ground, up to three million people living in Northern Syria are being boxed in, with nowhere to go.

    President Bashar al-Assad's forces are continuing their onslaught in northwest Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. The cease-fire announced by Assad and his Russian backers at the end of August has been all but broken, according to Idlib resident and civilian activist Jomah Alqasem.

  • Jomah Alqasem:

    The airstrikes in the recent offensive are more concentrated towards the rebel front lines. This is the burned by land — or what they call the burned land strategy that the Syrian regime, Syrian army and the Russian backup of the air is demolishing all this architecture.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While Idlib burns, hundreds of thousands of residents are fleeing toward Turkey, joining a bottleneck of refugees from other parts of Syria, packed into overcrowded camps like al-Hol.

    The camps for the desperately displaced are fertile ground for extremists looking for recruits. Camps across the border are also at their breaking point. Turkey is already host to 3.6 million refugees, having made a deal with Europe to keep them from migrating further.

    Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now threatening to release the refugees unless Europe provides more aid.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    This either happens, or we will have to open the gates. Either you will provide support, or, excuse us, but we can only tolerate this so much. Are we going to carry this weight alone?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Turkey is also poised for its own conflict in Northeast Syria, against the very forces that have helped the U.S. beat back ISIS. The Syrian Kurds are viewed by Turkey as terrorists, threatening to carve out their own nation.

    Caught in a crosscurrent of dueling interests, the U.S. agreed to help clear the northeastern border of Syrian Kurdish outposts, and begin patrolling the border, along with Turkish forces. But Turkey's foreign minister says the U.S. isn't doing enough.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu (through translator):

    There are some joint patrols, but other than that, the steps that have been taken, or the steps that are said to be taken, are cosmetic steps.

    We are seeing that the United States want to enter another stalling process. They are trying to get Turkey accustomed to this stalling process. But our stance on this matter is very clear.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The multifront war in Syria has divided allies and diffused attention. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet urged the world to refocus.

  • Michelle Bachelet:

    These figures are appalling, shameful, and deeply tragic. In a bid to take control of territories, there appears to be little concern about taking civilian lives.

    Any further escalation will only result in further loss of life and displacement of civilians who have already been forced to repeatedly flee a situation of dire humanitarian conditions. So I appeal to all parties in the conflict and to those many powerful states with influence to put aside political differences and halt the carnage.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Meanwhile, back in Idlib, Jomah Alqasem says his fellow countrymen, women and children are losing hope.

  • Jomah Alqasem:

    All of these humanitarian actors that we have seen actively being involved in the Syria crisis are shrinking and decreasing the fund that is being allocated to the Syrian response.

    What we are seeing is the worst humanitarian crisis, let's say, or part of the Syrian crisis that has been chronically occurring the last nine years. But, unfortunately, this is the weakest response.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    According to The New York Times, the U.S. is boosting its military response in Northeast Syria. It's sending 150 additional forces to monitor the border with Turkey.

    Joining me now to discuss this conflict in Syria and on other fronts is retired General Joseph Votel. Until April, he led U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East. He is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute.

    General Votel, it's a pleasure to have you with us here at the "NewsHour."

    Is there a solution in Syria?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Well, certainly, there is.

    I mean, the solution is, we have to get to a political settlement of the situation here. Military operations can only do so much, but, ultimately, the international community has got to come together, hopefully under the support of the United Nations, to move forward with a political solution here in Syria.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But what role does the U.S. play? The U.S. really isn't involved in a place like Idlib. It really isn't involved in the Syrian civil war.

    Beyond it wanting to contain ISIS, what role should the administration be playing in Syria right now?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Well, I think the role the United States should be playing certainly is that we have led a 79-member coalition to address the threat of ISIS. And we have done that very effectively.

    And we have used our partners on the ground to do that. And now, in places like North and East Syria, we are working with our partners to help stabilize these areas so we can create platform that would allow for — allow for the international community to move forward.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You oversaw the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Syria last year, after it was ordered by President Trump via Twitter.

    You were not informed or consulted before that move. Had you been consulted, what would you have said?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Well, I don't think that would have been — as I have said, I don't — in congressional testimony — I don't think that would have been my recommendation at the time.

    I think it's important to remember that, in December, at the time when that announcement was made, we were still very engaged in a military campaign down in the Middle Euphrates Valley. We had not yet completed the defeat of the caliphate. And so we needed to finish that.

    So it wouldn't have been my advice to make that decision at that particular juncture.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis actually resigned over that decision.

    Six months since you have retired from Central Command, are you seeing ramifications of that troop withdrawal? And do you think ISIS is potentially resurgent still in Syria?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Yes, I think that's an excellent question.

    I think we have always been concerned about the resurgence of ISIS. It's important to recognize that what we accomplished was the defeat of the physical caliphate, the state-like entity that ISIS tried to impose, and actually did impose for a long period of time, which we, I think, completely dismantled.

    But that doesn't mean all the fighters have gone away. What we have learned over time with these types of organizations is that we do have to keep pressure on them. They have gone to ground. They have gone to small cells. So we have to stay after them in terms of that. We have known that that's going to be a requirement.

    And that's a key aspect of, I think, what we're doing now with our partners on the ground.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Let's talk about Afghanistan, troops there also under your command, troops there also promised a withdrawal.

    President Trump called off secret talks he had planned with the Taliban and the Afghan government last week over the death of an American soldier. Some 2,000 Americans soldiers have been killed there in Afghanistan.

    When lawmakers and others criticize negotiations with the Taliban because they consider them terrorists — and, mind you, yesterday was the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — what would you say?

  • Joseph Votel:

    The strategy the administration has put in place that was announced in August of 2017 was to move towards an end state of reconciliation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.

    And so that's what the object of all of our military activity and a lot of our diplomatic activity has been since then, is to create the conditions that would bring the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan together.

    And through our special envoy, that's what a bulk of his work has been over the last year-plus, to try to do that. This will not be resolved militarily.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What do we stand to lose as nation if we pull out now?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Well, I think we have to remember the reason why we went to Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan because Afghanistan turned into a land of instability that allowed an organization like al-Qaida to plot an attack that killed 3,000 of our citizens.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Is it not still completely unstable?

  • Joseph Votel:

    I don't know that it's completely unstable. There certainly is an element of instability that is being caused by the Taliban and other terrorist groups that operate in that particular area.

    But it's in our interest, it's in our national interest to ensure that we try to get Afghanistan as stable as we can, and that the instability that remains in Afghanistan doesn't impact our other interests.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You recently wrote a letter, along with many other generals, more than two dozen, about the Trump administration's policy toward refugees.

    And your argument is that drawing down the number of refugees this nation accepts could actually destabilize our allies, as well as threaten our own national security.

    Can you explain that?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Sure.

    One of the provisions I think that we addressed in the letter was a provision for the special immigrant visa. This is a program that was set in — was put in place a number of years ago to offer an opportunity for those who assisted us in our military operations to come to the United States.

    I think what we have to remember is, many of these Afghan citizens that served with us as interpreters not only put themselves, but put their families at risk, in support of our national security objectives.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Iraqis as well.

  • Joseph Votel:

    And Iraqis as well.

    And so this is — I think this is — it's important for us to follow through, I think, and provide them the safety and the opportunity to come to our country.

    And the special immigrant visa, the P-2 and visa program that's in place for Iraq, these are extraordinarily important programs. And they send a very strong message to our partners and people that put it on the line for us that we are with you and we are going the stay with you.

    We have talked about the number of refugees in countries like Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan. All of these countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, have absorbed huge numbers of refugees.

    And this is a challenge for the international community that we have to address. And I think the United States has to play a role and be seen as a leader on this. So that's what motivated me to support this letter.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    General Joseph Votel, former head of Central Command, thank you so much.

  • Joseph Votel:

    Thank you. It's great to be with you.

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