In this Nov. 7, 2018, photo released by the U.S. Army, U.S. soldiers gather for a brief during a combined joint patrol rehearsal in Manbij, Syria.

In this Nov. 7, 2018, photo released by the U.S. Army, U.S. soldiers gather for a brief during a combined joint patrol rehearsal in Manbij, Syria. U.S. ARMY PHOTO

The ‘Day After’ In Syria Finally Came. But What Comes Next?

If U.S. military commanders were unsure of their mission four years ago, it’s even muddier today.

TAMPA — Last ­year, Gen. Joseph Votel, America’s top general in the Middle East walked through the bombed-out remains of Raqqa, Syria, and saw a trickle of surviving men, women, and children reclaiming their liberated city from ISIS. They were beginning to repair a massive scene of destruction, piece-by-piece, with their bare hands. On streetscapes reduced to skeletal buildings, children picked up concrete chunks from the rubble and banged them to the ground to extract the metal rebar. It was a daunting scene, and a foreboding one.

Hours later at a secret base in Northeast Syria, a visibly upset Votel pounded a table before reporters, pleading — all but ordering — the international community to get in there and get to work. It was time, he said, to rebuild that which his U.S.-led coalition of fighters had just destroyed to liberate innocent Syrians from the Islamic State, time to bolster a hard-won foothold against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian sponsors. Meanwhile, he said, his forces would hold the land until a Geneva peace process could solve Syria’s civil war.

That help never came. At least, not at the levels that might have sown the seeds of a new Middle East.

Elsewhere, the Syrian Democratic Forces and their U.S. backers continued a village-by-village campaign to kill, capture, or expel ISIS fighters. They fought for four years, all the way through this weekend, when President Trump and their commanders declared the Islamic State’s physical territory to be wiped out. The “caliphate” was over.

By a cosmic stroke of timing, so too is Votel’s career. On Thursday, the celebrated four-star officer retired on schedule and handed U.S. Central Command to his successor, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. Few have the experience of Votel, who was one of the first to parachute into Kandahar in 2001, later led U.S. Special Operations Command, and finished with three years at CENTCOM — and America’s de facto top diplomat for the region.

Votel offered a message in his farewell speech before Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, and his successor Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. What he said is increasingly unpopular to American ears: the U.S. wars stretching from Afghanistan to Syria need to end, but won’t anytime soon. The ISIS war is not over and the U.S. military’s enormous and expensive troop presence across the vast region must continue, lest Iran take advantage and terrorists once again use regional bases to plan and execute attacks on the West.  

“As our president said recently, great nations don’t fight ‘forever wars,’ and we shouldn’t. It is time to bring these conflicts to a conclusion. This won’t be as quick as anyone would like, but it can be done,” Votel said.

Related: Defense One Radio podcast with CENTCOM’s Gen. Joseph Votel 
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Votel is the umpteenth general to say as much. He’s also the latest in a line of CENTCOM commanders who has begged for the world to do more than just send troops to fight terrorism – to do more than fight and leave. Spend more. Commit more. Care more. As CENTCOM, he had promised Syria’s Kurdish and Arab militia leaders that the United States would stand by them. His mission, he told them, was to hold ground until a grand bargain was negotiated with Assad, and a new Syrian government installed.  

Then Trump decided to end all that, and Votel had to deliver the bad news. In an interview with the Tampa Times, he diplomatically and dutifully said that though the president’s order to withdraw was a surprise, the military quickly went to work to carry it out. “We can think about it. We can talk about it. But it doesn’t help get the job done.”

So, as Votel and with thousands of American troops leave the region, McKenzie assumes command of a CENTCOM with an uncertain future. The White House has forecasted an Afghanistan drawdown could be coming — though Votel told Congress in his final appearances this month that the time is not yet right. And what Thursday’s speakers said — Milley, Shanahan and Votel — there will be some U.S. troops in Syria for some time, and in Iraq, if politicians there desire. What level, what purpose, what mission those troops have will always be up to the White House. But the endless variance of U.S. commitment is felt by CENTCOM and SOCOM leaders down here in Tampa. Too little, and they forecast doom. Too much, and the American president (and many frustrated voters on the left and right) won’t stand for it. And with Washington and the electorate showing no real taste for increasing America’s non-military tools to fight the root causes of extremism, they expect little to change.

It’s not a new problem. When the ISIS war started, Votel’s predecessors, President Obama, and Congress disagreed over how much U.S. military force they should send to stop the fast-moving terror group, and whether to get involved in Syria at all. Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno wrung their hands and wondered what the United States wanted to happen “the day after” ISIS was defeated. They all learned from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that it’s not getting in that’s hard, it’s getting on and getting out. Dempsey and other senior leaders did not want to send Americans to fight and die by the thousands for another Middle Eastern country. Instead, the U.S. fought “by, with, and through” a new army of SDF fighters in Syria and helped rebuild the Iraqi armed forces, which kept American costs and casualties to a minimum. In many aspects, the ISIS War is a counterterrorism success that will be taught at war colleges for years to come, one senior U.S. military leader said. In other aspects, Washington’s refusal, under both Obama and Trump, to help Syrians directly dethrone Bashar al-Assad and own Syria may have wasted one of the West’s best chances to foster a new and moderate, Western-friendly democracy – one that could deliver a serious blow to autocrats, Iran, and extremism in one fell swoop.  

On Monday, “the day after” finally came. And if military commanders were unsure what to expect from the president and their civilian leaders four years ago, it’s even muddier today.

“This is obviously, for those of us who have worked on the Middle East and worked on Syria and worked on the efforts to defeat ISIS, a great day,” said Jim Jeffrey, the president’s special envoy to the ISIS war, in a Monday State Department press conference, “a great weekend, with the victory over the last ISIS territorial caliphate positions along the Euphrates in Syria.”

Jeffrey continued, “This is not the end of the fight against ISIS. That will go on, but it will be a different kind of fight.”

As President Trump and his 2020 challengers call for U.S. troops to quit those wars and come home, Jeffrey was among the many dignitaries who lined up at the CENTCOM change of command to greet the incoming McKenzie. The queue wound around a hotel atrium and down a long ballroom hallway, past giant posters of pictures and maps that advertised CENTCOM’s progress against ISIS and the remarkable achievements and influence of Votel — and served as stark reminders of its sizeable and seemingly never-ending missions left to complete. 

The U.S. military will be in the Middle East for a long time. No matter which general carries the CENTCOM colors, how big, how long, and what purpose depends on President Trump and, then come November 2020, American voters.