The Cable

Pentagon Acknowledges 2,000 Troops in Syria

Officials have no plans to withdraw U.S. forces until ISIS is beaten.

US special operations forces near Raqqa, Syria on May 25, 2016. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
US special operations forces near Raqqa, Syria on May 25, 2016. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon on Wednesday acknowledged that 2,000 American troops are on the ground in Syria, the first time the military has admitted that it deployed well more than the Obama-era limit of 503 troops. And it was recently even higher: The new number reflects the withdrawal of 400 Marines who had been providing artillery support to U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.

The issue of just how many American troops are quietly deployed to conflict areas around the world has taken on a fresh urgency after the October ambush of U.S. forces in Niger that left four soldiers dead. Before the firefight, there had been no public acknowledgement that there were were 800 U.S. troops in the country, part of a growing U.S. presence battling Islamic extremists in Africa.

Since then, the Pentagon has said there are 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 3,000 President Donald Trump sent this fall. Previously, the Defense Department had said 8,900 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan.

Despite the pullout of the Marine gunners, U.S. troops are going to be on the ground in Syria for the long haul, defense officials said on Wednesday.

“We will be in Syria as long as it takes to make sure that ISIS is not afforded the ability to re-establish safe havens and conduct attacks,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters on Wednesday. The U.S. presence there “will be determined by conditions on the ground,” he added.

Two defense officials told Foreign Policy the future of the U.S. mission in Syria is still unclear, though it will likely be a mix of counterterrorism operations and stabilization missions. The Islamic State lost its capital of Raqqa in October, but still has 3,000 fighters in eastern Syria and across the border in Iraq, U.S. defense officials say. That will keep special operations forces busy carrying out counterterrorism strikes targeting the Islamic State and any al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

U.S. forces will also be on hand to help stabilize areas liberated from the Islamic State. The United States wants to ensure that “sustainable, self-sufficient local security forces” can be established in the mostly Kurdish north and “promote inclusive governance” in those areas, Manning said.

He declined to elaborate, and other defense officials said that planning is just beginning to outline those tasks, which have proven daunting even after more than a decade of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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