WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Gen. Jack Keane (US Army, Retired) warned against a complete US withdrawal from Syria, predicting a quick resurgence of the Islamic State if that were to happen.
Speaking on Saturday to Fox News, Keane explained that the decision to end the US presence in Syria “will permit ISIS to resurge in six months to twelve months—worst case—and also begin to retake territory.”
Keane, who served as Vice-Chief of Staff of the US Army from 1999 to 2003, has been a key voice in the formulation of the US approach to the post-9/11 wars.
During the tenure of George W. Bush’s first Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the US took a minimalist approach toward the war in Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF.)
Even though Baghdad fell and Saddam Hussein was overthrown with relative ease, by 2005, the effort was “failing,” as Keane explained to the highly regarded PBS documentary series, “Frontline.”
Rumsfeld and his top generals refused to acknowledge the problem, Keane said, prompting him to return from retirement to become a central figure in formulating “the surge” strategy that the US adopted in 2007 once Rumsfeld had resigned.
The new approach, which focused on a counter-insurgency strategy, was largely successful. However, Barack Obama, who had campaigned in 2008 on opposition to OIF, became president, and he was not much interested in Iraq. He believed that Afghanistan was the right war, and Iraq was the wrong war—although, arguably, Iraq should be of much greater strategic concern to the US as Afghanistan is a remote, distant, and underdeveloped country.
Soon after Obama took office, Washington began to disengage politically from Iraq. That marked the beginning of the unraveling of US success in post-Saddam Iraq, even before the withdrawal of US forces two years later, Keane told “Frontline” in July 2014, shortly after the Islamic State captured Mosul.
Of course, just a month later, Obama was obliged to send US forces back to Iraq as the Islamic State pushed on, seizing one-third of the country, threatening Erbil, as well as Baghdad.
Now, Keane says—clearly and unequivocally—that a complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria would be another big mistake.
However, he does not see that happening tomorrow. He noted that President Donald Trump has said that the withdrawal of US forces must be based on establishing certain conditions, one of which is “protecting the Kurds”—and no arrangement yet exists for that. In addition, Trump has two other conditions: assuring that “ISIS does not reemerge” and “not permitting” an Iranian “land bridge” to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean.
Moreover, Keane suggested that a substantial decrease in the US presence in Syria was possible and would not cause problems.
“We can probably reduce those forces,” he said, referring to the 2,200 US soldiers deployed there. “What is really crucial,” he continued, is “control of the airspace in eastern Syria.”
“That doesn’t require a lot of people on the ground,” Keane added. “But it requires some because it’s not going to be effective if you can’t direct it from the ground.”
“This is all about US air power, British air power, and French air power,” he concluded, “primarily strike fighter aircraft precision bombing, directed from the ground.”
Of course, that would create conditions similar to those prevailing in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the emergence of the Kurdistan Region and what has now become 28 years of Kurdish self-government. Turkey has voiced strong objection to anything similar in Syria.
Keane explained that his understanding of the prospects for a resurgence of the Islamic State—six to twelve months—was, in fact, the estimate of Gen. Joseph Votel, the outgoing CENTCOM commander.
Votel is on a tour of his area of command to bid farewell to his counterparts and thank them for their cooperation and support.
On Monday, Votel told journalists traveling with him that there are "tens of thousands" of Islamic State fighters still in Syria and Iraq.
“They are dispersed and disaggregated, but there is leadership, there are fighters there, there are facilitators there," he said.
He affirmed that US troops would leave Syria, but he would not give a timeline.
There was very little difference between what Keane and Votel said, as one would expect, because, almost certainly, they are in regular communication.
Being retired, however, Keane has more freedom to speak and offer his opinions, and he was more expansive.
Keane explained on Saturday that the Islamic State has been “preparing for some time” this “Phase II” of its operations.
“They knew they were going to lose that territory when the United States committed to take it away from them,” he said.
“They’ve been organizing and preparing to put their efforts into a terrorist network in Iraq,” Keane added. “Fifteen assassinations a month, right now in Iraq,” along with regular vehicle bombings and suicide bombings, and “they’re preparing for that in Syria,” as well.
“There’s close to 30,000 of them left,” he continued, “because they did not fight to the death” in Mosul, Ramadi, or even Raqqa. “Many were killed,” but they preserved “virtually half” of their fighters “for this phase.”
Most likely, the vast bulk of the remaining 30,000 men are local forces, from Iraq and Syria, as it would be difficult to conceal significant numbers of foreign fighters in the Arab communities now liberated from Islamic State control.
In October 2017, Keane also strongly criticized the Trump administration, after it turned a blind eye to the Iraqi-Iranian assault on Kirkuk, following the Kurdistan independence referendum.
Reportedly, the White House relied on Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy to the Defeat ISIS coalition, who failed to inform it of Tehran’s prominent role in the planned attack.
Keane, however, was very well-informed. “The United States has got to get involved,” he told Fox News shortly after the assault. “The Iranians are in full, backing the government of Iraq, stomping all over the Kurds. We’ve got to stop that from happening.”
Editing by Nadia Riva