U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James B. Jarrard, the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at a televised press briefing on Tuesday that there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria, then quickly walked backed his answer.
The number of U.S. troops operating in Syria has been mystery since the start of the U.S.-led campaign to oust ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria.
The Obama administration originally set what is referred to as Force Manning Levels, or FML. These numbers represent the maximum number of troops allowed in Iraq and Syria. The current FML for Iraq is 5,262 and 503 for Syria.
However, those numbers don’t paint the actual picture of the size and scope of the U.S. footprint in either country. U.S. commanders on the ground have leeway to bring in extra troops for limited periods of time that don’t count towards the total FML.
The current number of troops in Syria is above the FML, Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesperson told Military Times. But the number of U.S. boots on the ground in Syria is “not anywhere near” the 4,000 figure Jarrard mistakenly told reporters on Tuesday.
The special operations commander “is only human; he just made a mistake,” Pahon told Military Times.
Part of the problem with providing accurate figures of troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria is a result of a convoluted accounting and tracking process left over from the previous administration, Pahon explained.
The issue was the same in Afghanistan, where the public has just recently learned that total force numbers in Afghanistan were higher than the 8,400 commonly publicized by the Pentagon and U.S. military officials. The current U.S. troop number in Afghanistan is closer to 11,000, with an additional several thousand on the way as part of the Trump administration’s new South Asia strategy.
Much like the Iraq and Syria FML caps, the Afghanistan troop numbers did not take into account temporary or short duration deployments.
Nevertheless, some have estimated that there are nearly 2,000 Marines, Army Rangers and special operations forces assisting U.S.-backed Syrian fighters to liberate ISIS-controlled territories, according to a report from Buzzfeed.
Coalition forces have operated from a number of temporary remote outposts in northern Syria from the cities Manbij, Kobane, Tal Abyad and Tabqa as U.S. partner forces marched toward the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa.
Images of massive convoys carrying coalition trucks and weapons and supplies to Syrian Democratic Forces could be seen on an almost daily occurrence, hinting that U.S. involvement in the Syrian battlefield was much higher than the 503 telegraphed in daily press briefings.
Moreover, U.S. forces have been operating in a number of capacities to include security presence patrols to keep the peace between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish militants. Images of rangers steam rolling through the northern Syria countryside in Stryker vehicles brandishing American flags during the spring was a common sight for several months.
A task force of U.S. Marines has also been providing 24-hour all-weather artillery support to Syrian fighters. And U.S. special operations forces are actively advising and supporting SDF fighters as they continue to take ground from ISIS.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has ordered the Pentagon to conduct a review and find a better way to account for U.S. troops deployed overseas in an effort to simplify the process but also to be more transparent with the public, Pahon explained.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.