Vice President Pence told U.S. diplomats Wednesday that the Islamic State caliphate has collapsed in Syria, but he made no mention of the U.S. military personnel confirmed killed in the country shortly before he spoke.
“Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we are now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners,” he said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State, prompting applause from the 184 diplomats in the audience. “And we are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”
Last month, Trump also claimed the military group had been defeated, leading him to announce the withdrawal of about 2,000 U.S. troops there, though the timeline has wavered. Other administration officials have acknowledged that Islamic State fighters remain active in a small area of the country.
At about the same time as Pence arrived on stage in an auditorium at the State Department to military marching music, his press secretary tweeted that Pence had been notified of the troops’ deaths earlier Wednesday. The Islamic State claimed credit for the suicide bombing that took their lives.
“@VP has been briefed on the situation in Syria. He and @POTUS are monitoring the situation. Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the fallen,” tweeted Alyssa Farah.
Hours later, the vice president’s office issued a statement acknowledging the American fatalities and expressing sympathy to the service members’ families.
“President Trump and I condemn the terrorist attack in Syria that claimed American lives and our hearts are with the loved ones of the fallen. We honor their memory and we will never forget their service and sacrifice,” it says.
“Thanks to the courage of our Armed Forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities. As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate — not now, not ever.”
Pence has a son, Michael, who is an officer in the Marine Corps.
U.S. officials told The Washington Post that initial reports suggested four Americans may have died. In addition, at least three Americans are believed to have been wounded, one of them critically, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the still-evolving conditions on the ground.
News of the combat deaths prompted a far different response from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday that the troop withdrawal announced by Trump has emboldened the militant group.
“My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting,” Graham said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “So I would hope the president would look long and hard of where he’s headed in Syria.”
Graham compared Syria to Iraq and said the United States needs to maintain its commitment to forces fighting the Islamic State and its ideology, which cannot be as easily wiped out.
“Every American wants our troops to come home, but I now think all of us want to make sure that when they do come home, we’re safe,” he said. “I know people are frustrated. But we’re never going to be safe here unless we’re willing to help people over there who will stand against this radical ideology.”
In the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), urged Trump to reverse the decision to pull troops from Syria.
“Today’s deadly bombing targeting our troops in Syria is a reminder that ISIS still has the capacity to carry out attacks,” he said.
Pence, following several rounds of applause, said the fight against militants in Syria remains a priority for the administration.
“We will stay in the region, and we’ll stay in the fight, to be sure that ISIS does not rear its ugly head,” he said. “We will protect the gains that our soldiers and our coalition partners have secured. This president has often spoken about his desire to bring an end to endless wars. And the ability to bring our troops home. And bring them home in an orderly and effective way.”
The annual conference brought together 184 ambassadors and chiefs of mission from embassies and consulates around the world to discuss foreign-policy issues the envoys are expected to raise. The travel money was spent before the partial government shutdown began. A State Department official said the conference went ahead because it is considered “essential to the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security.
During Pence’s speech, State Department employees who helped organize the conference but are not receiving pay during the almost four-week-old shutdown stood lining the steps alongside the wall. Pence did not mention the shutdown.