Eric Schmitt and Ben Hubbard
Four Americans were among 19 people killed Wednesday in a suicide bombing in northern Syria that was claimed by the Islamic State, just weeks after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces and declared that the extremist group had been defeated.
The attack targeted a restaurant in the northern city of Manbij where U.S. soldiers would sometimes stop to eat during their patrols of the area, residents said. After the blast, a number of Americans were evacuated by helicopter, they said. It was not immediately clear how many had been in the area at the time of the blast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 19. A statement by U.S. Central Command said the explosion happened while the troops were “conducting a local engagement.” Two American troops, a contractor and a civilian were killed; three U.S. troops also were injured.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said Trump had been briefed on the attack, “and we will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria.” Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a gathering of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department headquarters Wednesday, maintained that plans to pull troops out of Syria remain on track.
Pence also said, however, that the United States would “stay in the fight to ensure that ISIS does not rear its ugly head again.”
The bombing puts Trump in the position of being squeezed between his decision to withdraw U.S. troops and his promise in a tweet Sunday to hit the Islamic State group again, and “hard,” if the group lashed out.
The United States has about 2,000 soldiers in Syria who were sent to work with local militias in 2015 to fight the Islamic State militants. Wednesday’s attack prompted calls from Republicans and Democrats in Congress for Trump to reconsider his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a prominent Trump ally who has criticized the Syria withdrawal plan, suggested the president’s stance emboldened Islamic State fighters and encouraged such attacks.
Trump’s statements “set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting” and “make people we’re trying to help wonder about us, and as they get bolder, the people we’re trying to help are going to get more uncertain,” Graham said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “I saw this in Iraq. And I’m now seeing it in Syria.”
Manbij, a city in northern Syria, has been ruled by nearly all sides that are fighting in the country’s civil war that broke out in 2011. A U.S.-backed militia of Kurdish and Arab fighters ousted the Islamic State fighters from the city in mid-2016.
Since then, Manbij largely has been governed and protected by U.S.-backed local councils. While the city is hundreds of miles from any territory held by the Islamic State forces, it sits next to territory controlled by Turkey and its Syria rebel allies. American forces maintain a number of bases near Manbij and run frequent patrols.
A statement from the Islamic State, released through its Amaq news agency, said the suicide attacker blew up his explosive vest to target a patrol of coalition soldiers and local militiamen near the Qasr al-Umara restaurant in Manbij. It claimed killing and wounding nine Americans and a number of local residents. A helicopter carried the dead and wounded away, the group said.
In December, Trump announced that he wanted to withdraw the U.S. forces in as little as 30 days. That decision, over the advice and then objections of his top national security aides, was followed a day later by the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Mattis signed the formal order to begin the military withdrawal before he left the Pentagon at the year’s end. But last week, John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser, outlined conditions for the withdrawal that could leave U.S. forces in Syria for months or even years.
So far, the military has begun withdrawing some equipment, but not yet troops, from Syria. The overall plan for the withdrawal has yet to be described in detail.
American military officials have offered a cautionary note that there was also a surge in violent attacks in Iraq in 2011 as U.S. troops were withdrawing from that conflict. Wednesday’s attack in Syria, the officials said, could be viewed as a signal from the Islamic State that, contrary to Trump’s assertions that the caliphate has been destroyed, it remains a threat.
“The battle against ISIS is far from over,” said Charles Lister, a counterterrorism specialist at the Middle East Institute. “Not only are the U.S. and their local partners still engaged in open warfare against ISIS in eastern Syria, but there have also been clear signs for many months that ISIS maintains the ability to conduct a low-level guerrilla-style insurgency in Syria, as typified by today’s attack.”
Some members of Trump’s administration have said publicly that U.S. forces should remain in Syria as leverage in negotiations with President Bashar Assad for an end to Syria’s war, to keep Iran from expanding its influence, to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies and to prevent a jihadi resurgence.
Before Wednesday’s attack, two U.S. troops had been killed in Syria since the first contingent of Special Operation troops entered the country in 2015.
Last March, Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, an elite Army commando, was killed by a roadside bomb near Manbij; in 2016, Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Cooper Dayton, a bomb disposal technician, was also killed in a roadside blast near the town of Ayn Issa.