The four Americans killed in Manbij, Syria on Wednesday — two soldiers, a Defense Department civilian and a military contractor — matched the largest number of deaths from hostile fire in a single incident overseas since Donald Trump became president.
The killings, in a suicide explosion claimed by the Islamic State, came less than a month after Trump declared the militants defeated and ordered that the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria be withdrawn.
Since then, the administration’s strategy has been thrown into confusion, as Trump’s defense secretary resigned in protest. The announced pace of withdrawal has varied, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought aid from Arab allies. New conditions have been set for the U.S. departure, even as the president has said he is determined that the troops leave sooner rather than later.
Other powers have rushed to fill the coming void, including Turkey, Russia and the government of Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Manbij, wrested from the militants by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters and American air power in 2016, is a nexus of the interests and conflicts of the many players in Syria. As various interests squabbled in recent months over political and military control of the town, 25 miles south of the Turkish border, the Islamic State was the one actor that appeared to have been eliminated from the contest.
Instead, the bombing showed that it is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with in Syria for the foreseeable future.
Though the attack seemed to belie Trump’s claims about the militants’ defeat, those who have supported the U.S. withdrawal said it proved he is right to claim a win on his own terms and get out.
“I stand with the president in putting #AmericaFirst, bringing our troops home and declaring victory,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a Twitter post as he headed for the White House to see Trump. After they spoke, Paul issued a statement saying he had “never been prouder” of the president, who “stood up for a strong America and steadfastly opposed foreign wars.”
But others said the bombing deaths — which included an unknown number of Manbij residents and Syrian Kurdish fighters — were a direct result of a foolish and abrupt departure announcement, and had made the case for staying.
“From the beginning, I thought the president was wrong” in ordering the withdrawal, said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It was a strategic mistake for the whole region.”
Trump himself said nothing, issuing no public statement about the U.S. casualties — including at least three wounded by the bomb — or how the administration would respond.
Instead, it was left to Vice President Pence to issue a statement, which he said was on behalf of the president and himself, condemning the “terrorist attack” and commiserating with the loved ones of the dead. “We have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “As we begin to bring our troops home . . . we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate — not now, not ever.”
The four deaths doubled the total number of U.S. personnel killed by hostile fire in Syria since the deployment there began just over three years ago. It matched the number of Special Operations troops killed in a militant attack in Niger in October 2017.
By separating the destruction of the self-declared Islamic State caliphate that once spanned large portions of Syria and Iraq from the existence of some 20,000-30,000 militants that U.S. officials believe remain in the two countries, the administration has carved out a relatively narrow definition of its objective.
But for some experts, it is the only realistic goal. “Manbij was captured two and a half years ago,” when a U.S.-armed and trained ground force, composed largely of Syrian Kurds, expelled the Islamic State with the help of withering U.S. air attacks, said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“It’s not like there wasn’t stabilization progress in Manbij,” a north-central Syrian city about 25 miles from the Turkish border. “Manbij was a showcase back in 2017,” Ford said. What happened there Wednesday “is why I, at least, believe you can’t fix ISIS with Americans,” he said.
“Iraqis have to fix it; Syrians have to fix it,” Ford said. “It’s just not something that non-Arabic-speaking, non-Kurdish-speaking — however capable, dedicated and smart — American Special Ops guys are going to be able to do.”
U.S. troops are stationed in and around Manbij as part of an agreement with Turkey. Ankara has long objected to the presence there of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG — the bulk of the U.S.-aligned force fighting the Islamic State. Turkey considers them terrorists allied with Turkish Kurdish separatists.
Last year, to prevent a threatened attack by Turkish forces accompanied by Turkey’s Syrian Arab allies, the administration agreed to ease the occupying YPG out of Manbij and east of the nearby Euphrates River. U.S. and Turkish military forces would then jointly patrol the area around the town, a process that began late last year even as the Kurdish force largely remained.
Meanwhile, Assad’s Syrian forces moved ever-closer to the town, hoping to reclaim the territory. This month, Russian ground forces also began patrols on the western side of Manbij.
Russia and Turkey hailed the U.S. decision to withdraw troops from across northeastern Syria, where the Americans have, in effect, been a bulwark between Turkish forces massed along the border and the Syrian Kurdish fighters who occupy both Arab and Kurdish border towns.
It was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s complaints about this situation — and a pledge to take over the remaining fight against Islamic State forces that have been driven far to the south — that prompted Trump’s sudden agreement, in a Dec. 14 telephone call with the Turkish leader, to withdraw.
The decision appeared to fly in the face of the U.S. strategy announced last September, when senior administration officials said that American troops would remain until the militants were defeated, a protective arrangement had been worked out for the Syrian Kurdish fighters and, most important, Iran and its proxy forces aiding Assad had left the country.
During visits this month to Israel and Turkey, White House national security adviser John Bolton insisted that those objectives still would be met. They were conditions to which Trump appeared to acquiesce, although he has been vague in giving public voice to his agreement. Turkey called Bolton’s comments “a serious mistake.”
U.S. and Turkish military officials have discussed the establishment of a “safe zone” inside Syria along the border with Turkey, although it remains unclear whether their ideas coincide on who would protect it and against whom.
The Manbij attack, Erdogan said Wednesday in Ankara, according to Turkish media accounts, “might have been meant to affect” Trump’s withdrawal decision. But any delay, he said, would be “a backward step” and a “victory” for the militants.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that his government had its own plans for the border area. “We are convinced that the transfer of these territories to the control of the Syrian government [and] the Syrian armed forces . . . is the best and only right way,” Lavrov told reporters.
Russia announced that President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan will meet in Moscow next week to discuss the situation, “in light of Washington’s announced plans to withdraw its troops from Syria.”
Anne Gearan, Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello in Washington and Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.