The Pentagon says there are roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, quadruple the number U.S. officials had acknowledged until now.
The figure reflects an order by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to revise how the Pentagon accounted for deployed personnel carrying out major operations in Iraq and Syria. The new number does not mean additional troops have been deployed to the volatile country, but it does show the large inaccuracy of previous figures.
"In implementing this change, we seek to balance informing the American public with the imperative of operational security and denying the enemy any advantage," Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Robert Manning said Wednesday.
Manning noted that troop numbers in Syria are "trending downward." The revised number of U.S. troops in Iraq remained the same as was previously acknowledged, about 5,200, although Manning said the number of U.S. forces was also trending downward.
"We hope that trend continues," he said.
The new numbers exclude sensitive missions and certain types of personnel, such as security personnel attached to the U.S. embassy in Iraq, according to Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.
The Department of Defense provided a similar revision for troop numbers in Afghanistan in August, changing the acknowledged number of troops from about 8,400 to 11,000.
Why US troops are still in Syria
The Pentagon says that U.S. troops are still required on the ground in Syria to ensure an “enduring defeat” of Islamic State terrorists.
“Along with the global coalition of more than 70 countries, 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 plan and conduct attacks,” Manning said.
Pentagon officials say American troops will help with the restoration of basic services, allowing the safe distribution of humanitarian aid and helping to disable explosive devices left as the terror group fled their strongholds.
“ISIS left a minefield,” Pahon said.
The Pentagon estimates about 97 percent of the territory once held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has now been retaken by local forces.
Russia on Wednesday claimed that Syria was now “completely liberated” of IS fighters. And earlier this week, Russia’s Ministry of Defense also announced that it had started working with Arab and Kurdish groups operating east of the Euphrates River, an area where American advisers and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces operate.
The Pentagon has criticized Moscow’s military presence in the country. According to Manning, Russia has only conducted “a fraction” of the counter-IS operations in the country.
“The Syrian regime and Russian federation’s actions have thus-far demonstrated that countering ISIS and other violent extremist groups, like Nusra Front and al-Qaida, is not their foremost priority,” he said.
Manning added that Russia appears to lack a plan for a “meaningful conclusion that addresses the fundamental problems that led to the rise of ISIS.”