The Defense Department on Wednesday acknowledged that the U.S. has roughly 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, four times more than what officials had claimed just a month ago.
The number does not represent an increase in troop levels in the country, a Pentagon spokesman said, but instead reflects a more accurate count. The U.S. military had as recently as November said the official troop count in Syria was 503.
Army Col. Rob Manning told reporters that troop numbers are actually “trending downward” in Syria, with the recent departure of 400 artillery Marines. Those forces left the country after helping local forces retake the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) one-time de facto capital of Raqqa.
Manning would not say whether the 400 Marines were part of the new 2,000-troop figure.
“It’s approximately 2,000 now, could be more, could be less, we don’t want to showcase our capabilities to the enemy,” Manning said at the Pentagon.
The current official troop count under an accounting system known as the Force Management Level does not always reflect the U.S. commitment on the ground accurately, as commanders bring in temporary forces or hire more contractors.
Pentagon officials in August, for example, acknowledged that there are about 11,000 U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan — well above the 8,400 forces previously reported. That number is now at closer to 14,000 after the Pentagon sent roughly 3,000 additional U.S. troops to help end the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan.
Manning also said on Wednesday there are about 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq — a number that remains unchanged from past reports — but said that it is also shrinking.
Officials said the amount of forces are declining in Syria and Iraq as operations shift away from combat and more toward train and advise, explosives cleanup, reconstruction, and maintaining security and preventing ISIS from returning.