In a newly released video, U.S. troops, many of whom are with the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division, are shown assisting Iraqi forces along the border with Syria, where many Islamic State fighters have fled as the terror group has continued to lose territory it once held in Iraq.
Now, as the U.S. presence in Iraq is expected to decline, Iraqi and coalition forces want to ensure those fighters cannot return.
“We’ve pursued ISIS to the border and are currently working with the Iraqi security forces to ensure ISIS is not able to come back across the border and penetrate into Iraq,” Army Lt. Col. Colonel Brandon Payne said in the video, which was produced by the Associated Press.
In addition to protecting the Iraq-Syria border, U.S. forces are concerned about the possibility of conflict on the Syrian border with Turkey.
After crossing the border to attack Kurdish forces in Afrin, Syria, the Turkish military has started refocusing roughly 60 miles east, towards Manbij, where U.S. forces are known to operate.
“There’s concern … that an entry or any type of action by Turkish Defense Forces … is going to pull troops away from the fight against ISIS, and it might give ISIS opportunities or even freedom of maneuver ... to attack other Syrian Defense Forces more aggressively or possibly even Iraqi Security Forces along the Syrian border,” Army Capt. Josh Standifer said in the video.
As of December, there were 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to a Pentagon report.
On Monday, the AP reported that the U.S. and Iraq have agreed to reduce that number to 4,000 given the progress against ISIS. U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have said they intend to maintain a presence in Iraq even after ISIS is defeated in order to ensure the insurgency does not reemerge.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon would not say whether there would be a change in the number of U.S. troops on the ground. He did say there would be a shift in the kind of forces on the ground, to focus more on stabilization instead of combat operations against the Islamic State,
“We are looking at the next phase of operations,” Pahon said, adding that the “level of forces [in Iraq] will be conditions based.”
Reporter Tara Copp contributed to this report.