This time last year, the US military was refusing to admit that there were four times as many troops in Syria as it had disclosed previously, insisting they were serving as temporary military advisers to local forces fighting ISIS.
Now, however, the Pentagon is giving a face, a name, and a map location to the US presence in Syria – and sharing it on Twitter and Instagram. A slickly produced videoposted last month drives home just how starkly the US has reversed its previous efforts to shield the details of its involvement there. It’s an acknowledgment that the US mission in Syria is semipermanent and vastly expanded, even as President Donald Trump has publicly mused about pulling US troops out.
The latest video, set to dramatic music and drone footage of the landscape, features Sgt. Matthew Yanik, an infantry squad leader with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, and shows US troops conducting drills near the small US military outpost at al-Tanf in southeastern Syria. It is one of a series of new bases that the Pentagon has quietly built in the country, according to local reports.
"We are responsible for keeping everybody and all our operations inside here safe because you never know if and when an attack could come,” Yanik says. "In the back of a lot of people's minds there is that thought of, you know, we're never going to be digging fighting holes in a modern war. But here we are, in Syria...and we're doing our job, we're doing it well.”
Clips of the video were promoted by the US Marine Corps Twitter and Instagram pages as well, with the message “Fire through this week with some motivation from Special Purpose [Marine Air Ground Task Force] in Syria."
A few years ago it would have been jarring to see the US military presence in Syria promoted as if it were Afghanistan. But overlapping and intentionally vague statements about what exactly US troops in Syria are doing, how many of them are doing it, and how long they are planning to be there have seemed to lull much of the country into accepting that they are there long term. Even US combat deaths there have ignited little debate.
“The level of public-facing ownership of the US presence in eastern Syria and at al-Tanf is a marked contrast to a year ago,” Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon official, told BuzzFeed News.
This may be due to a more consistent internal policy within the Trump administration, which now includes a newly defined focus on countering Iran, she said, adding, "What is less clear is to what end.”
The US military presence in Syria has grown from 50 troops dispatched in October 2015, in what was a major policy reversal by President Barack Obama, to more than 2,000 today. At the same time, the list of conditions for their withdrawal has grown.
Pentagon brass has consistently said the US is in Syria to drive out ISIS and train local forces to prevent what Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis calls “ISIS 2.0.” But the last year has seen a significant shift in that mission, and an entirely new page seemed to have turned when Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, declared last week that the US will remain in the country as long as Iranian forces and their proxies are there.
For years, the US mission was hazily defined as “it’s short term and we’re not going to talk a lot about it,” Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert and fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told BuzzFeed News.“Now there is more of a willingness to say, ‘We’re proud of this,’ and we can expect more messaging like that from the Pentagon, owning its presence in the Syrian conflict.”
It was easy for Americans to get behind a simply stated mission of defeating the terrorist group — “everybody hates ISIS” — and the success of the military mission has defused much of the political tension, he said.
“It’s quite amazing to think that we’ve gone from 50 troops, to 2,000, to an open declaration that the US isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “It’s a signal that there is a political decision that has been made at the White House that US troops being in Syria are no longer a grenade that can be lobbed at the administration.”
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