After eight long years of US involvement in the Syrian civil war, the Pentagon finally revealed the true number of US troops on the ground in Syria. The accounting system introduced by the Obama Administration that the public has had to rely on counted 503, while more accurate figures show the number is actually over 1,700.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has “expressed frustration” with the Obama-era method of counting US troops in conflict zones. The numbers never accurately reflected a true number since, according to Reuters, “commanders often found ways to work around the limits – sometimes bringing in forces temporarily or hiring more contractors.”
Most US troops in Syria are special operations forces who are training and advising opposition groups, such as the Kurds, and occasionally providing artillery support against ISIS fighters. However, according to the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, and a joint statement released by the United States and Russia, that strategy may be changing. After a call with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Cavusoglu announced that President Trump would be ending the supply of arms to Kurdish fighters in Syria who have been fighting an insurgent war in Turkey. “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions and that the [Kurdish fighters] won’t be given arms, and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” Cavusoglu said.
Furthermore, earlier this month the US and Russia made it clear in a joint statement that there was “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict. This reflects the Trump Administration’s starkly different stance from the Obama Administration, which had initiated US involvement in the conflict and continued to arm and train rebel groups with no successful diplomatic efforts.
The statement called on all parties to participate in UN-led talks in Geneva where a new round of negotiations began on November 28th. The US and Russia successfully reached a “de-escalation zone” agreement, or ceasefire, for the southwest region of Syria in July. The agreement came three months after President Trump ordered a Tomahawk strike on a Syrian government airfield, marking the first time the US had directly targeted the Assad regime.
The future of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will be discussed at Geneva and it will be interesting to see where the Trump Administration will stand. Secretary Mattis has acknowledged in the past that escalated fighting between dozens of extremist groups would take place in the vacuum left over by a violent Assad ouster.
After six years of intervention in the country, the United States and Russia may be in agreement that a democratic end to Assad’s rule is the best option. A recent phone call between President Trump and Putin involved assurances from Putin that Assad is in favor of holding presidential and parliamentary elections and working on “constitutional reforms.”
Miraculously, the US and Russia appear ready to end their proxy war that has killed and displaced millions of civilians. So while the fight against ISIS in Syria may be coming to a close, the fight for the future direction of Syria is just beginning.