About 2,000 American troops are operating in Syria, the Pentagon announced Wednesday, acknowledging four times the servicemembers in the embattled nation than it had disclosed.
Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said American troops will remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, even as Islamic State nears defeat there and in Iraq, countries where the militants once controlled vast areas of land. The United States will take a “conditions-based” approach to removing its forces from Syria, he said, aiming to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS control and bolster local groups to govern as it supports United Nations-led peace talks in Geneva.
Manning announced the new official figure for American servicemembers in Syria on Wednesday, saying Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants to increase transparency about where and how troops are deployed. As part of that effort, the Pentagon announced in August it had about 3,000 more troops in Afghanistan than acknowledged under then-President Barack Obama.
In Syria, under Obama administration accounting practices known as Force Management Levels, the Pentagon only acknowledged 503 troops in Syria, though officials privately admitted there were significantly more forces there.
Manning also said Wednesday that the United States has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, essentially the same force size as the Pentagon acknowledged under Obama.
The Pentagon declined to say why it took three months longer to disclose more accurate troop counts for Iraq and Syria than Afghanistan. Manning said the delay was in an effort to “get it right.”
The Pentagon’s new public numbers reflect an approximation of deployed troops as of Wednesday, Manning said. U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq are “trending downward,” he added, without specifying whether the 2,000 troops in Syria included the 400 Marine artillerymen that the Pentagon announced last week would soon leave the country.
“We seek to balance informing the American public with the imperative of operational security and denying the enemy any advantage,” he said. Manning declined to say how many American troops were in Syria or Iraq at the height of urban combat operations — those in Raqqa or Mosul, for example — that required larger footprints of U.S. combat advisers.
ISIS has lost about 97 percent of the land it once controlled across Syria and Iraq, Manning said Wednesday, but small pockets of fighters remain in both countries.
“Important work remains to ensure lasting defeat” of ISIS, he said. “We will be in Syria as long as it takes to make sure that ISIS is not afforded the ability to reestablish safe havens and plan and conduct attacks.”
Operations in both countries are shifting as the terrorist group shrinks, said Eric Pahon, another Pentagon spokesman. U.S. advisers are primarily focused on operations to remove thousands of improvised explosive devices and other threats left behind by the terrorists so locals can safely return to their homes.
“ISIS left a minefield when they started walking out,” he said.
The U.S. troops are also focused on training local police forces, ensuring humanitarian aid can flow into areas where it is needed and ensuring local governance where U.S.-backed forces liberated land from ISIS, he said.
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