What appeared to be a moment of confusion by a U.S. Army two-star general briefing reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday underscored the actual confusion about how many U.S. troops are on the ground in Syria.
The Pentagon has admitted its official number, 503, is really an artificial cap imposed by the Obama administration, and had promised to provide a more accurate number as long as it doesn’t give valuable intelligence to the enemy.
But while the Pentagon revised the numbers for Afghanistan upward by several thousand, it has yet to do the same for Iraq and Syria, despite a promise from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for more transparency in informing the public about how many troops are in harm’s wary.
On Tuesday, when a reporter asked Maj. Gen. James Jarrard for the current troop totals, the general stumbled, first saying “approximately 55,000 Syrian,” then saying “or 5,000,” and then apologizing and finally saying, “I'm sorry. I think it's a little over 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria right now.” Jarrard, briefing reporters from Baghdad, is the commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
His comment prompted an immediate follow up questioning the 4,000 number. Jarrard quickly corrected himself. “I'm sorry. I misspoke there. There are approximately 500 troops in Syria.”
Wow. Question on how many US troops are in Syria. MG initially says 4,000 (!) then apologizes, changes to 500 after a follow-up. pic.twitter.com/ru92GkU3PW— Jake Godin (@JakeGodin) October 31, 2017
And that might have been that, except that it’s widely believed there are perhaps twice as many U.S. troops in Syria than the Pentagon is admitting. The Washington Post published an account that questioned whether Jarrard really had an honest moment of confusion, or slipped up and accidentally told the truth.
“It’s not immediately clear whether Jarrard misspoke or, in fact, divulged information that reflects the true scope of U.S. military activity in Syria,” the Post reported. “It has long been an open secret that the Pentagon has far more personnel involved in the campaign against the Islamic State than its publicly disclosed figures suggest.”
The Post noted that the recent assault on Raqqa by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces required hundreds of additional Americans in Syria to provide back-up for the four-month assault.
And Mattis himself, while promising to be more upfront with the American people, has also made clear he would not reveal troop deployments or locations in a country while fighting is going on.
For now, the Pentagon is sticking to the Obama-era numbers, 503 U.S. troops in Syria, and 5,262 in Iraq.
But when later questioned about the general’s momentary mistake, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged the “longstanding practice” of not counting some personnel in the publicly released number, including troops on “short-duration temporary duty,” or whose deployment overlaps with a unit they are replacing, or are civilian or contract personnel.
“These numbers are reported to Congress on a monthly basis,” said Col. Rob Manning. “The report contains a full classified explanation of the methodology for how these numbers are calculated.”