Four Americans were killed in a suicide attack in Syria on Wednesday, the largest loss of life in the Pentagon’s war against Islamic State militants there and a sign of the potent threat that remains as the Trump administration begins to withdraw.
The attack occurred in the northern city of Manbij, where American forces have conducted patrols after militants were flushed from the area. In coming months, those troops are expected to depart in keeping with President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that the Islamic State had been defeated and troops would be coming home.
U.S. Central Command said those killed in the suicide blast included two American troops, a Pentagon civilian employee and a U.S. contractor conducting a “local engagement.” Three additional U.S. service members were wounded, officials said in a statement.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders praised the “brave American heroes” who died in the attack. “Our service members and their families have all sacrificed so much for our country,” she said in a statement.
The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the blast. On its unofficial news agency, Amaq, the group said the attacker used an explosives-laden vest to target coalition forces and that nine American troops were killed or injured. Amaq presented no evidence for that claim.
The White House said Trump had been “fully briefed” on the incident, the most deadly since U.S. troops arrived in 2015. Previously, two American service members had been killed in action in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria.
Speaking at the State Department several hours after initial casualty reports, Vice President Mike Pence did not mention the bombing or the deaths, but instead hailed Trump’s leadership in combating the militants in Syria.
“We are bringing our troops home,” Pence said in an address to more than 180 U.S. ambassadors and chiefs of missions abroad gathered for a conference in Washington. “The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”
In a statement issued by his office later in the day, Pence offered sympathy to the families of the Americans who were killed, condemned the attack and said the United States would “never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever.”
Surveillance camera video, apparently from the site of the attack, showed the explosion erupting on a busy sidewalk, sending a child running from the flames with hands clasped over his ears. Bodies and blood trails could be seen spread across the ground in photographs from the immediate aftermath.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 19 people were wounded or killed. A Kurdish news agency reported that at least 10 people were injured in the attack, which it said occurred outside a popular restaurant.
Trump announced last month that the U.S. force of more than 2,000 U.S. service members would be leaving Syria, more than four years after U.S. forces launched an international coalition to dislodge the Islamic State from its self-declared “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq.
The president’s declaration surprised allies and foes alike, drawing consternation from international partners and accusations of abandonment from a U.S.-backed Kurdish force that has suffered thousands of casualties during the military campaign.
In public pronouncements, Trump initially justified the decision by saying that the Islamic State had been defeated. Advisers then launched a weeks-long lobbying effort in an attempt to get Trump to change his mind or slow the withdrawal, and defense officials have reminded the president that the Islamic State continues to wage stiff resistance in eastern Syria, while maintaining the ability to launch strikes elsewhere in the country.
Nearly a month after Trump’s first announcement, widespread confusion remains about what the administration’s exit plan actually entails.
The U.S. military announced Friday that it has begun withdrawing equipment from Syria but declined to provide details, leaving it unclear whether any materiel has been pulled out of the Manbij area. Pentagon officials said then that initial withdrawals would be limited to equipment and that no troops had yet departed.
It also remains unclear whether the United States will pull all U.S. troops out of Syria or leave several hundred now stationed at the al-Tanf garrison in southeast Syria.
The drawdown is widely seen as likely to spark battles for control of areas vacated by the Americans, but there was no immediate indication of any link between the withdrawal plan and Wednesday’s attack in Manbij.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Louisa Loveluck, Missy Ryan