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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 February 2019

ISIS blast in Syria deepens disagreement over US exit plan

Some say Donald Trump should reverse his decision

A line of US military vehicles drive through a checkpoint of the Internal Security Forces in Manbij. AFP
A line of US military vehicles drive through a checkpoint of the Internal Security Forces in Manbij. AFP

A deadly ISIS attack that killed four American personnel in the Syrian city of Manbij on Wednesday has widened the rift in Washington over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the war-torn country.

For some American officials, the suicide blast that killed two US service members, one Department of Defence (DoD) civilian and one contractor supporting DoD, suggests that the president should reconsider his exit plan, especially since the attack undermines claims that militants have been defeated.

Others chose to ignore the attack that incurred the largest loss of US life in Syria since Washington entered the conflict, and instead, doubled-down on promises to press-ahead with the plan to withdraw US forces.

"The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated," American Vice President Mike Pence told a gathering of US ambassadors in Washington, without referencing the attack that took place only hours earlier.

"Thanks to the leadership of this commander-in-chief and the courage and sacrifice of our coalition partners, we're now actually able to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners and we are bringing our troops home," he said.

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Mr Trump last month cited the defeat of ISIS as the main reason behind his decision to withdraw America’s approximately 2000 troops from Syria.

However, Wednesday’s attack, which also wounded three US troops, underscored a need to reverse or adjust the withdrawal plan, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said during a committee hearing on Wednesday, adding that Mr Trump’s pull out plan has emboldened the militant group.

"My concern, by the statements made by President Trump, is that you set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we're fighting. You make people we're trying to help wonder about us. And as they get bolder, the people we're trying to help are going to get more uncertain. I saw this in Iraq. And I'm now seeing it in Syria," he said.

"Every American wants our troops to come home, but I think all of us want to make sure that when they do come home, we're safe," he added.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said the attack demonstrates the lethal capability of ISIS and "the fact that it happened in Manbij, probably the single most complicated area of Syria, demonstrates that the president clearly doesn't understand the complexity of the problem."

President Trump has yet to comment on the blast but members of his party have said that it will not impact his decision to withdraw.

Sen. Rand Paul, said that Mr Trump told about a half-dozen GOP senators during a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, that he remained "steadfast" in his decision not to stay in Syria.

In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quickly responded to the Manbij blast saying he believes it won’t reverse Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw troops. The American president won’t halt the withdrawal because it would mean ISIS wins, he said.

Speaking during a joint press conference with visiting Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic on Thursday he vowed to continue the fight against ISIS and said that his country will “eliminate this terrorist group in Syria.”

Mr Erdogan is a vocal advocate of US plans to exit Syria.

The US-backed Manbij Military Council, which is linked to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has controlled Manbij since they seized the city from ISIS in 2016.

The US-led coalition conducts regular patrols inside Manbij and on the outskirts of the city.

Russia’s military police recently deployed to areas outside Manbij, where they are conducting patrols in a zone adjacent to rebel-held territory in Aleppo province.

Wednesday's incident was not the first time that forces of the US-led coalition were subjected to attacks in the area, although they have been rare.

In March last year, a roadside bomb killed two coalition personnel, an American and a Briton, and wounded five in Manbij.

Amaq – ISIS's media wing – claimed that the attacker on Wednesday used a suicide vest to strike at coalition forces near a restaurant in the flashpoint Kurdish-held city.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the blast killed at least five US-backed fighters as well as nine civilians.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said two US-backed local fighters and 13 civilians were killed in the attack.

Updated: January 17, 2019 07:51 PM

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