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In rare Syria visit, top U.S. commander affirms mission

STORY: This photo shows the top-ranking U.S. military commander on an unannounced visit to Northeast Syria over the weekend.

Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew into the dusty, embattled region where the U.S. has a force of about 900 service-members deployed to monitor and counter remaining Islamic State militants. The little-known American mission in Syria meant to keep a lid on any potential resurgence of ISIS as the U.S. tries to grapple with threats from Russia and China.

These pictures were snapped by Reuters Pentagon correspondent Phil Stewart, who accompanied General Milley into Syria.

"General Milley is of the mindset that U.S. troops in Syria are helping ensure that Islamic State won't come back.

He is convinced that there are still a very large number of Islamic State militants who are in hiding right now, aren't able to organize or mobilize. A lot of them are being detained in detention camps inside Syria. They're being held in those camps under lock and key by U.S. partner, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The idea behind the mission, really, is that it's an insurance policy. To make sure that America doesn't face another Islamic State threat that would require a major mobilization. That in the minds of Milley, and President Joe Biden and others, would be a major distraction from our priorities, which are, addressing the imminent threat from Russia, which is manifesting right now in Ukraine with its invasion. And then the pacing threat, which is what the Pentagon describes it as, of China, which is the near-peer competitor, whose military is growing in capability and and becoming increasingly muscular and capable."

U.S. troops have operated in Syria without permission from Damascus since 2015. It is today a remnant of the global war on against terrorism that saw massive U.S. invasions and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those two operations have since ended, top American commanders appear committed to maintaining a small cadre of forces in Syria, for now.