The US Defense Department plans to announce as early as Monday that around 2,000 US troops are currently deployed in Syria, two American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters Friday.
The United States has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the number of troops and “military advisers” it has fighting alongside the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the US military routinely announced foreign troop deployments, but the Trump administration stopped disclosing such information about Operation Inherent Resolve. The policy was reversed in the spring, to keep up the “element of surprise” against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists in both Syria and Iraq.
“In order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection, the coalition will not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon at the time.
But with the fight against ISIS seemingly winding down, reporters began questioning the number of US servicemen deployed in Syria. The figure appears to be so secretive, that even James B. Jarrard, who heads the US-led Special Operations task force, stumbled when pressed to come up with a definitive answer recently.
At first, Jarrard said there were 5,000 US troops in the region, but immediately corrected himself, lowering the figure to 4,000. After being grilled by the press, he then dramatically reduced the number to “approximately 500 troops.”
Confusion surrounding the actual number of soldiers deployed abroad is as a result of the management system Washington uses to cap numbers of American soldiers serving overseas. The Obama Administration used the Force Management Level (FML) system for managing the US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The FML capped the US troop presence in Iraq at 5,262 and in Syria at 503. The Trump Administration, however, delegated authority to establish troop caps for Iraq and Syria to the Secretary of Defense, instead of the United States Department of Defense (DoD).
Washington’s military engagement in Syria has repeatedly been branded “illegitimate” by Damascus, which views the US presence in its country as an anti-government intervention. Reports suggest, however, that the US is not planning to leave any time soon. Just on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the US wants to keep its troops in Syria long after Islamic State terrorists is defeated to help the SDF establish “new local governance” structures while preventing complete victory by the Syrian government and its ally, Iran.