The US military confirmed that two US service members and two other Americans were killed in Syria on Wednesday in an explosion that raises questions about Trump administration claims that ISIS has been defeated.
It was the deadliest day in Syria for US forces since they entered the country in 2015. Prior to Wednesday, two US troops had died in combat there.
US Central Command confirmed the deaths in a statement that provided few other details.
“Two U.S. servicemembers, one Department of Defense (DoD) civilian and one contractor supporting DoD were killed and three servicemembers were injured while conducting a local engagement in Manbij, Syria, Jan. 16, 2019,” the statement said. “Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation.”
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by a suicide bomber. The US did not assign responsibility, but the group that has been the primary US ally in Syria against ISIS said the explosion shows ISIS has not been defeated.
“This shows that ISIS has not yet finished,” said Aldar Khalil, a political official aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces. “The territory that was governed by ISIS has shrunk, but they exist as sleeper cells.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the Syrian conflict, reported that the attack took place outside a restaurant and killed two members of the “international coalition” as well as five “local fighters” who’d been escorting the foreign troops. It said nine civilians also died.
The attack came less than a month after President Trump ordered US troops to withdraw from Syria, claiming that ISIS had been defeated there. Vice President Mike Pence repeated that claim Monday at the State Department in an address in which he said nothing about the US deaths.
“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence said.
Later, his office released a statement in which he condemned the attack, but insisted that “we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”
The location of the attack, in the town of Manbij, underscored concerns that, though ISIS has lost much of its former territory in the country, it maintains sleeper cells still capable of launching attacks. Manbij was officially freed from ISIS control in 2016.
SDF officials have warned repeatedly in recent interviews that ISIS members hiding among the population remain a threat even in areas now under the control of US-allied forces.
Before Trump’s withdrawal order, one purpose of the continued US presence in Syria was to help the SDF to eliminate the remaining ISIS networks that might one day help ISIS mount a comeback.
“There are sleeper cells,” Kino Gabriel, an SDF spokesperson, said earlier this week, speaking by phone from Syria. “The goal of the fight we are waging against terrorism is to eliminate those ISIS leaders who are coordinating attacks.”
Manbij, which sits near the border with Turkey, has been central to tensions between the United States and Turkey over the US presence in Syria. The Turkish government considers the SDF, which is dominated by ethnic Kurdish fighters, to be an extension of a Kurdish separatist group waging an insurgency in southern Turkey. It has painted the SDF presence in Manbij and other former ISIS areas near the Turkish border as an existential threat.
US and Turkish troops have reportedly conducted joint patrols of Manbij at times in an effort to ease tensions.
But in December, citing long-standing concerns in Manbij and elsewhere, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly threatened an incursion into Syria.
He reiterated his complaints during a subsequent phone call with Trump — a call that reportedly inspired Trump to announce his unexpected decision to withdraw from Syria.
Until Wednesday’s attack, two US service members had been killed in combat in Syria since US Special Forces entered the country in 2015. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Cooper Dayton was killed by a roadside bomb in northern Syria in November 2016, and Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Jay Dunbar was killed by an IED in March last year.