The Slatest

What the Deaths of Four U.S. Troops in Syria Could Mean for Trump’s Withdrawal Plans

An image grab taken from a video published by Hawar News Agency (ANHA) on January 16, 2019, shows the aftermath of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
An image grab taken from a video published by Hawar News Agency (ANHA) on January 16, 2019, shows the aftermath of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
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Sixteen people including four U.S.
troops were killed in Northern Syria on Wednesday in a bomb attack claimed by ISIS. The bombing took place at a restaurant in the rebel-controlled city of Manbij.
Before this attack, only two U.S. troops had been killed in combat in Syria, according to the Pentagon. Two others have died outside of combat. The bombing occurred at a restaurant where U.S. troops were meeting with a local U.S.-backed militia. Previously occupied by ISIS, Manbij was recaptured by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in 2016 and is currently a major flashpoint in escalating Kurdish-Turkish tensions in Northern Syria.

The attack comes nearly a month after Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, declaring ISIS “defeated.” At a meeting Wednesday with U.S. ambassadors in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence said, “The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated” without mentioning the Manbij attack.

While the drawdown of U.S. forces formally began last month, the timing of when it will be completed is unclear as U.S. officials focus on a number of related goals including protecting Kurdish allies, blunting Iran’s influence in Syria, and continuing the fight against he remnants of ISIS.

When he announced his initial order, Trump described the mission to defeat ISIS as the “only reason” for the U.S.
troop presence in Syria. With that in mind, it’s unclear what impact Wednesday’s tragedy will have on the pace of the withdrawal.

It’s possible it could bolster Trump’s determination to remove “our young people” from what he has called a land of “sand and death” that holds little strategic importance for the U.S.

On the other hand, officials like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who have been making the case for an ongoing U.S. presence in Syria could use the attack to convince Trump of the need to continue the fight against the remnants of ISIS.

ISIS may have lost control of the vast territorial “state” it once governed, but the group still remains dangerous as a more traditional underground terror network. This then raises the difficult question that the U.S. has been grappling with since Sept. 11, 2001: Can such a group ever really be “defeated?”