U.S. troops have been fighting Islamic State militants in Syria for four years and will remain in eastern portions of the war-torn country until American leaders are convinced the terrorist group cannot mount a return, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.
For now, ISIS remains the sole focus for the roughly 2,000 American troops in Syria, whose objectives include aiding Syrian Democratic Forces in defeating the terrorist group and training local security forces to protect areas already purged of the group, Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
It was a similar refrain from the defense chief who has long insisted U.S. troops were only in Syria to face down ISIS.
“Our troops are there for that one purpose right now,” Mattis said of the fight against ISIS. “We obviously have got to train up local security forces, so that ISIS and others … cannot get in. That’s part of the defeat of ISIS.”
But his comments followed statements by National Security Adviser John Bolton that American forces had other roles in Syria.
Earlier Monday, Bolton told The Associated Press that American troops would remain in Syria as long as Iranian-controlled forces were in the country propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been locked in a seven-year civil war also backed by Russia.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signaled that he was considering the pull out of U.S. troops from Syria. Trump said last week that he would make a decision soon about the future of the American troops there.
Mattis on Monday declined to make the same assertion as Bolton about Iranian forces. Still, the former Marine general insisted there was “no daylight” between his and Bolton’s position on Syria. Mattis said the two men had spoken twice already Monday, but he referred questions about Bolton’s statement to the White House.
Mattis placed blame for the ongoing bloodshed in Syria on Russia and Iran. Without their support for Assad, Mattis said the war would have ended years ago. He encouraged all sides to support the U.N.-led peace process to end the war.
In eastern Syria, U.S. troops and Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting ISIS in their final stronghold of Hajin, a town on the Euphrates River about 20 miles from the Iraqi border. Mattis declined to say how long that fight could last. U.S. officials have estimated ISIS still boasts 1,000 to 2,000 fighters in the area.
“That fighting is ongoing,” Mattis said. “As we forecasted, it’s been a tough fight, and we are winning.”
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