- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A deadly suicide attack by the Islamic State that claimed the lives of four Americans and seriously injured several others in Syria on Wednesday has reignited debate in Washington over the Trump administration’s claim that the terrorist group has been defeated and raised new questions in Congress about the president’s plan to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

The attack targeted a joint patrol of American and Kurdish forces in the northwestern Syrian city of Manbij — the training and logistics hub for U.S. operations in Syria — killing two U.S. service members, a Pentagon civilian employee and a U.S. contractor. The names of the Americans were not released Wednesday night so that their families could be notified.

Video from a nearby security camera showed a huge fireball erupting outside a restaurant on a busy Manbij commercial district, sending passers-by and debris flying through the air. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 16 people, including nine civilians, were killed. Among the dead were at least five U.S.-backed Syrian fighters, the group said.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, citing unidentified local sources, said a number of U.S. soldiers were injured and that the U.S. military evacuated them by helicopter.

President Trump was briefed on the attack Wednesday morning and later convened a high-level emergency meeting of his national security team, as well as several congressional lawmakers, to discuss the Syria situation.



With the Islamic State quickly claiming responsibility, the incident sparked a swift political backlash in Washington. Lawmakers, including some key Republicans on foreign policy, called on Mr. Trump to reconsider his argument that the Islamic State had been “decimated” in Syria and that U.S. troops could be safely withdrawn.

The Manbij bombing “is a reminder that ISIS still has the capacity to carry out attacks,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a sometime confidant of the president, said Mr. Trump’s surprise withdrawal plan announced a month ago was emboldening the Islamic State and warned that the attack Wednesday may be only the beginning.

“I know people are frustrated, but we’re never going to be safe here unless we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical ideology,” he said.

The attack grew even more problematic for the White House when Vice President Mike Pence went ahead with a planned speech Wednesday morning hours — after news of the Manbij attack broke — strongly backing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal plan, which has been criticized by U.S. allies in the region who say it could leave a power vacuum in Syria.

“Thanks to the leadership of [President Trump] and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we’re now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria,” Mr. Pence said in the speech. “We are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”

Mr. Pence later issued a statement saying he and Mr. Trump “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.”

The death toll in Manbij is one of the highest from a single incident suffered by U.S. and coalition forces in Syria since President Obama dispatched troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State in 2014.

The bombing site was near the Qasr al Umara restaurant in downtown Manbij, said to be frequented by American and European troops as well as members of the Syrian Democratic Forces — the Kurdish and Arab paramilitary group that helped drive the Islamic State from its self-styled capital of Raqqa in 2017.

Despite the controversy surrounding the deployment of Syria deployment, attacks targeting members of the U.S.-led coalition there have been rare. In March last year, a roadside bomb killed two coalition personnel, an American and a Briton, and wounded five in Manbij.

At the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said the Wednesday attack was “stark reminder of the dangerous missions that men and women in uniform perform on our behalf” in Syria and elsewhere around the world.

The defense chief declined to comment on whether the attack would affect the administration’s withdrawal plan.

Furious debate

Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria has sparked a furious debate in Washington and in the Middle East. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the White House’s top envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, resigned in protest over the decision.

Since then, the president and his top aides have struggled to clarify the timetable and conditions under which U.S. forces will depart, alarming and angering states in the region.

Tensions have soared with Turkey, a NATO member that considers the Syrian Kurds fighting alongside American forces as allies of Kurdish separatist groups that have long battled the Ankara government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to take military action against Kurdish forces after the U.S. pullout, said Wednesday that he did not believe the Manbij attack would derail Mr. Trump’s withdrawal plans.

“I believe that [Mr. Trump] will not take a step back in the face of the act of terror,” the Turkish leader said. “If there is a step back, that would amount to a victory for [the Islamic State].”

Mr. Trump reportedly agreed to the Syria withdrawal plan after a December conversation with Mr. Erdogan, who in return agreed to provide Turkish forces to battle remnants of the Islamic State in the wake of the American withdrawal.

The suicide bombing fueled a raging debate over the strength of the Islamic State. Mr. Trump noted that the terrorist group lost virtually all of the land it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, but analysts say the Islamic State still has a strong core of supporters in the region and the ability to carry out deadly operations.

While the Islamic State “is no longer the force it once was … a withdrawal from Syria will give them new life,” Ken Pollack, a former National Security Council official and CIA Middle East analyst, said in an interview.

“There is no question [the Islamic State] would like to speed our exit and claim credit for pushing us out of Syria,” said Mr. Pollack, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “You always want to get the Americans.”

While opponents of the Syria withdrawal are pressing the White House to rethink its plans in the wake of the attack, one former Army officer argued that the bombing is a clear sign that the U.S. mission has run its course and should be wound down.

“Why are they doing patrols? They’re not accomplishing anything for America,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis. He added that the attack “should accelerate the withdrawal, not keep us there.”

Mr. Davis, now a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, said those backing a U.S. military presence in Syria continue to adhere to a post-9/11 mentality — that battling extremists overseas will keep them from attacking the homeland.

“We don’t prevent anything here by fighting over there,” he said. “We just make more people we have to fight against.”

The Trump White House should take a page from the Reagan administration’s strategy in dealing with the political blowback from the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Mr. Davis said.

“Reagan suffered horrible losses of Marines who shouldn’t have ever been in Beirut,” he said. “Instead of accelerating that and expanding that, he cut our losses and came home. No more Americans died.”

• Dave Boyer and Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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