“That’s where we are now,” Manning said. “If a major shift occurs, then we’ll come back out with a new, official number.”
The actual number of troops has been in decline for months. Last week, about 400 Marines in an artillery unit — 1st Battalion, 10th Marines — that was carrying out strikes against the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa returned to the United States. The city once served as the de facto capital of the militant movement, but fell to the U.S.-led military coalition and its local partners in October. About 3 percent of Syria remained under Islamic State control.
Manning said Wednesday that it took weeks for the Pentagon to release the new official number because military officials wanted to make sure that it was right. Asked what the top number of U.S. troops in Syria was, he said he would have to check.
The disclosure comes about five weeks after a senior U.S. military officer, Army Maj. Gen. James B. Jarrard, told reporters during a news conference that there were about 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Moments later, a Pentagon spokesman, Eric Pahon, interjected in the same news conference that the number of U.S. troops actually was about 500, the number the Defense Department has long used for Syria.
But that figure — known as the “force management level” — did not include a variety of U.S. troops who deploy to war zones on assignments of 90 days or less. It also does not include some service members who are deployed on highly sensitive missions.
Over the summer, hundreds of U.S. troops — including Special Operations forces and artillerymen — deployed to Syria as the assault on Raqqa was prepared. Separately, the Pentagon also temporarily deployed Army Rangers to northern Syria over the summer, an attempt to keep the peace as Syrian Kurdish fighters liberated cities in areas where other armed groups were loyal to nearby Turkey.
Mattis said last week that the U.S. effort in Syria is pivoting from a military-led operation to a diplomatic-led endeavor.
“The troops are changing their stance as a result,” he said.
But U.S. military operations in Syria are expected to continue. Mattis said last month that the United States “won’t just walk away” from efforts it has made in the country, and will focus on creating safe zones for civilians as other efforts to stabilize the country continue.