US soldiers killed in Manbij; should troops leave?

A suicide bomber who triggered a fiery explosion that killed four U.S. citizens in Syria also reignited debate over President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the war-weary country.

Last month, Trump announced the U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawn. “We have won against ISIS.” Trump said. “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has generally been a Trump ally but has not supported plans to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Hours after Wednesday’s attack, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, Graham again called on the president to rethink his plans. 

“I hope the president would look long and hard about where he’s headed in Syria,” Graham said. “I don’t know how we can be safe unless we give (U.S. allies in Syria) the space to be safe.”

Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday repeated Trump’s claims that the Islamic State has been  thwarted in Syria, saying the “caliphate has crumbled” and the militant network “has been defeated.”

James Piazza, a professor at Penn State, has conducted research tracking how ISIS has increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks as it loses control over population centers, land and resources. The bombing shows that ISIS remains a threat as a “lower-grade insurgency” in Syria, he said. 

“The loss of territory really reduced ISIS’ capacity, and now it and its members are casting about for a way to remain relevant and to still try to affect the political situation,” Piazza said. “Its only option now is to conduct terrorist attacks like this.”

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, agrees with Trump that the U.S. had destroyed ISIS – militarily. 

“If anything, the attack on U.S. forces underlines the rationale to leave – not stay indefinitely,” Kazianis told USA TODAY. “ISIS can hide anywhere in the population of Syria, making efforts to stomp them less about a certain number of troops on the group but smart intelligence, air power and local intelligence assets.”

The attack complicates a messy plan for U.S. withdrawal, a decision Trump’s senior advisers disagreed with before offering an evolving timetable for the removal of the troops. The bombing also underscores Pentagon assertions that the Islamic State is still a threat capable of deadly attacks.

The White House said Trump was fully briefed on the bombing and issued a statement that stayed out of the debate.

“Our deepest sympathies and love go out to the families of the brave American heroes who were killed today in Syria,” the statement said. “We also pray for the soldiers who were wounded in the attack.

“Our service members and their families have all sacrificed so much for our country.”

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Trump’s decision to withdraw was one of the reasons Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cited for stepping down last month. Mattis urged Trump to maintain the U.S. presence to aid Kurdish allies and deter the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

After a series of confusing signals from the Pentagon and the White House, officials announced last week that equipment had been removed from U.S. facilities in Syria and that all troops would withdraw within months.

Two of the dead from Wednesday’s bombing in the northern town of Manbij were U.S. soldiers, and two others were U.S. civilians, military officials said. Manbij is controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Defense Units.

The explosion took place in a market wedged along a street thick with cars. Video from the scene shows people gathered on a crowded sidewalk when the fiery blast occurred. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the conflict in Syria, said the attack killed at least 16 people, including fighters with Syrian Democratic Forces. Those troops have fought alongside Americans in skirmishes with the Islamic State.

Since 2016, four U.S. troops had been killed in Syria before the latest attack, according to Pentagon records. Those troops took part in Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led effort begun in 2014 to combat Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

“Killing ISIS to the last man means we will stay in Syria likely for decades – and perhaps never leave,” Kazianis said. “Trying to defeat every single solitary possible threat is a standard of success no nation can afford, even a superpower like the United States.”

Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Tom Vanden Brook and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

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