The top US commander in the war against ISIS aligned himself Sunday with the US intelligence community assessment that there are “tens of thousands” of ISIS fighters spread across Syria and Iraq.
“They are dispersed and disaggregated, but there is leadership, there are fighters there, there are facilitators there,” Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters traveling with him to the Middle East for his farewell tour.
Votel’s comments underscore the testimony from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats before Congress, an assessment President Donald Trump has publicly disagreed with.
The statements, however, come as US backed fighters are in heavy combat in the last area of Syria where ISIS still controls territory.
“I’m very proud of the coalition force team that we have on the ground who’s assisting our Syrian Democratic force partners in what will be difficult fighting,” Votel said. “Urban terrain, high density of explosive hazards in the area, and the presence of displaced persons and others who are attempting to depart the area.”
He added that in the last 24 hours, operations were resumed in the Middle Euphrates Valley and are currently underway.
American officials believe the dispersed fighters may be in a wide swath of Syrian desert.
For now, Votel was definitive that all US troops will leave Syria, but he wouldn’t put a public timeline on when it will be completed.
“The President’s orders are very clear to us. We understand exactly what he has directed,” Votel said.
However, he also notes the US military will also continue looking for ways to keep the pressure on ISIS and support the SDF without ground troops inside Syria. He declined to offer specifics how that might be accomplished.
These comments came as Votel began a two-week farewell tour before stepping down as head of US Central Command. His trip, which comes just as the U.S. begins plans to pull troops out of Syria, will include meetings with foreign leaders to thank them for their support.
Votel is retiring after 39 years with the US Army.
CNN”s Katie Bernard contributed to this report.