The following is a transcript of an interview with General Joseph Votel, who served as the commander of the U.S. Central command from 2016 to 2019, overseeing military operations in the Middle East, that aired on Oct. 29, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to General Joseph Votel, former CENTCOM commander overseeing operations in the Middle East. General, it’s good to have you with us. I want to pick up where we left off with the National Security Adviser. He said, The US has elevated threats against US forces, elevated risk of the conflict spreading. What are the trigger points you are concerned about?
GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Thanks. Good morning, Margaret. It’s good to be with you. So, I think the thing that I’ve been concerned about and- and probably many have been concerned about is that any miscalculation along the line can move this to a different level. So, you know, an attack on- on an American installation, whether it’s military or diplomatic or commercial, that causes casualties, significant casualties and death that I think could- could significantly change the calculus- calculus for us. And certainly, a much broader attack by the so-called Iranian threat network here, whether it’s Hezbollah or whether it’s Iranian aligned militia groups in Syria, that broaden the conflict. I think these are all aspects that could- that could lead to a widening of the- of the conflict.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There have already been 20 militia attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq . There are about 19 service people who suffered from traumatic brain injuries, one contractor died. How do you understand that level of aggression?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, it’s very clear. I mean, Iran is behind this. Their- their- their elements in Iraq and to some extent in Syria, are perpetrating these attacks. And as the National Security Adviser said, we’ve got to- we’ve got to hold them accountable for that. And so it is critically important to not just be responsive, but to be directly responsive, to be forceful in our manner. Ultimately, what we need to do is compel these elements, and Iran was behind all of this, to stop this type of action right now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In Israel, their Prime Minister said yesterday, this is going to be a long war and we’re in the second phase. You just heard Jake Sullivan say the US is still asking questions like “what exactly are the objectives?” How do you describe what the IDF is doing right now in Gaza?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think what the IDF is doing is- I think the- the task they’ve probably been given is to destroy the war making capacity of Hamas. So, they are going after command-and-control locations, they’re going after logistics locations, they’re going after headquarters locations, and they’re going after the likely sites that- that Hamas would use to perpetrate missile strikes or rocket strikes on to- on to Israel. So, from my perspective, it’s pretty clear what the- what the Israeli military is doing. I think their job is to- is to- is to destroy that war making capacity of Hamas.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Should they stop once capturing Gaza City?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, again, I think they’ll have to make an assessment of- of- of their progress. Most of the- most of the effort now seems to be in the north- northern part of Gaza, and around Gaza City, which I think is most people who study this will recognize as the- are the primary areas where- where Hamas operates. So, they’ve definitely directed their operations against the places where Hamas is. And- and I think they’re- they’re actually approaching this in an incremental manner. I think we’ve seen introduction of additional forces over the last couple of days. So, they’re thinking about it that way. And of course, like any military force would do, they have to take assessments of their- of their progress as they- as they continue with their operations.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There is concern about another front here outside of Gaza. And I know on Wednesday, President Biden said he is alarmed by quote, “extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank,” in quote, “places they’re entitled to be.” One of Israel’s government ministers, Ben-Gvir, has video of him arming Israeli civilians with M-16 and M-4 assault rifles. How concerned are you about an uptick in violence in the West Bank?
GEN. VOTEL: Well again, I think this goes back to what we just talked about a few moments ago. That’s the miscalculations- I mean, this- this- this- it’s a tinderbox. And so, when you have people that are scared, they have weapons, they’re trying to protect themselves, then the chances for something going wrong in this, I think, increase. So, yeah- and- and- and the rhetoric has been- has been very strong about this about the vulnerability and the fact that- that Israeli settlers in the West Bank are targets. I mean, that’s essentially what- what these- these Islamic movements have been saying. So, I think it’s- I think it’s an ordinary critical situation and could flow- flow out very quickly.
MARGARET BRENNAN: General Votel, thank you for your analysis today and we’ll be right back, so stay with us.