Washington will maintain around 600 troops in Syria, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said Wednesday, despite President Donald Trump's desire to end US involvement in what he calls "endless wars".
"We're still moving troops out of northeastern Syria," the US defense secretary said onboard a plane as he travelled to Seoul, where he begins a tour of Asia on Thursday.
"We're going to have about 500 to 600-ish troops there, at the end of the day," he said.
Asked if that figure included the approximately 200 troops deployed to the al-Tanf base near the southeastern borders with Jordan and Iraq, Esper said that he was referring to northeastern Syria, where Trump has instructed the Pentagon to secure oil fields.
There would be "600-ish" troops across the country, he then reiterated.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, also said Sunday about 500 or 600 US troops will remain in Syria to counter ISIS militants.
Milley told ABC's "This Week" that pressure must be maintained on ISIS militants still in the region.
Esper said Thursday that the numbers of US troops could fluctuate, particularly if European allies strengthen their presence in the country.
"Things change. Events on the ground change. We could have, for example, partners and allies from Europe joining us," he said. "If they join us on the ground it may allow us the ability to redeploy further US forces out there."
Trump's abrupt announcement last month that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal drew angry rebukes at home and abroad.
Critics said it could allow a resurgence of ISIS while leaving US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria vulnerable to a Turkish invasion.
The US president later relented in part, saying he would leave some troops in the region to protect valuable oil fields.