A deadly suicide attack on U.S. troops in northeastern Syria claimed by ISIS could drive an impatient President Donald Trump to speed up the withdrawal of forces he ordered before Christmas, even as his national-security team argues such violence shows the terror group is far from defeated.
The suicide bomber attacked a restaurant in the center of the contested town of Manbij, apparently targeting what military officials called a “routine patrol” of U.S. troops and their Kurdish militia allies.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 16 people were killed, including five coalition-allied Syrian militia members. Tuesday afternoon, a Pentagon spokesman said two U.S. service members, one Defense Department civilian, and one contractor supporting the Defense Department contractor were killed and three other service members were injured. Names were being withheld pending family notifications.
Unverified video from local media shows a restaurant in tatters.
“The U.S. troops are always in that cafe,” said Ahmed Mohammed, a media and human-rights activist from Manbij. “People in the city are used to seeing them around and know that they go there a lot.” Mohammed said that several bombs have detonated in Manbij in the last week.
The Syrian Shaam News Network, an internet portal, reported that four of the dead were Americans. Local reporters said the suicide bomber self-detonated as the group of U.S. and Kurdish officers was entering the restaurant. The restaurant is owned by a Kurdish man and has been a frequent venue for meetings between U.S. officers and those of the Kurdish militia.
A mosaic of troops help secure Manbij, which straddles the border with Turkey, as part of the “Manbij Roadmap” agreed upon by the U.S. and Turkey last year. Turkish troops patrol the outskirts of the town on the Turkish side of the border, and on the northwestern side inside Syria, with pro-Assad forces just outside a Turkish line of control to the the south. U.S. Kurdish allies known as the Syrian Democratic Forces patrol the eastern edge of the town, according to the U.S. coalition’s description of area.
Manbij has been the scene of a tug-of-war between the U.S. and Turkey for well over a year, since it was liberated from ISIS in 2016. Turkey demanded the exit of Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, objecting to their control of an Arab city, where Kurds are a relatively small minority. The YPG make up a large portion of the U.S.-allied SDF. As part of the “roadmap,” the U.S. agreed that the YPG will depart Manbij, but Turkey says the implementation is well behind schedule.
Locals have complained bitterly that the YPG has given economic preferences for Kurds and made it very difficult for Arabs who fled the town during ISIS’ period of control, to move back.
Activists in the town who spoke to The Daily Beast said those who had been injured in the bombing were transferred to Turkey for treatment.
“All shops were closed immediately after the bombing because of the fear of another explosion,” Mohammed said. “The whole population is in a state of terror, especially [since] the explosion took place in a densely populated residential area.”
The attack comes as the Pentagon has been scrambling to modify its withdrawal plan after Trump first ordered a swift withdrawal, prompting his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign and causing dismay among U.S. allies.
Trump later modified the pace after a holiday trip to visit U.S. troops in Iraq, and intervention by several allies including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader had originally talked him into the withdrawal, by offering to mop up the remnants of ISIS, but didn’t realize Trump would turn on a dime. Trump tweeted of one of their conversations, “We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area.”
“The attack in Manbij might have been meant to affect Trump’s decision to pull out from Syria,” Erdogan said Wednesday, according to a tweet by Daily Sabah. “But as I saw Mr. Trump's decisiveness, I don’t think a backward step would follow such a terror attack. Otherwise, it would mean a victory for Daesh,” an alternate name for ISIS.
Hours after the blast, in a speech to the Global Chiefs of Mission conference at the State Department, Vice President Mike Pence declared that U.S. troops were going home and “the caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated.”
Another regional politician agreed, telling The Daily Beast he didn’t think this would budge Trump’s decision to withdraw. “We all admit that ISIS as a caliphate has been defeated, but individual terrorists and insurgents will remain for a time,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-evolving U.S. strategy. “In such circumstances… there is nowhere one can claim full security.”
Attacks on the roughly 2,000 coalition forces based in Syria are rare. An American and British soldier were killed by a roadside bomb in Manbij in March last year. But the violence doesn’t surprise those who have tracked the ebb and flow of terrorist groups in the region.
“While ISIS, in particular, has lost territory, it has shifted to guerrilla tactics like ambushes, raids, assassinations, and suicide bombings,” said counterterrorism expert Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The group’s current strategy is to move the battle elsewhere, establishing eight official branches and some two-dozen networks in North and West Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia—all part of a wider tapestry of Sunni extremist groups active in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and even Europe, he said.
“The Manbij attack should not be viewed in isolation,” he said citing his recent research on such groups. “A U.S. civilian was killed in an al-Shabab attack in Kenya this week, a group that is affiliated with al Qaeda. Europe has experienced several recent attacks inspired by ISIS, including the New Year’s Eve attack at a railway station in Manchester, England, and the attack in December 2018 at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.”