US soldiers have been killed by an explosion in Syria while carrying out a “routine patrol”, according to the anti-Isis military coalition in the region.
The explosion in the northern Syrian town of Manbij came two weeks after US President Donald Trump announced that the US would begin pulling its troops out of Syria, claiming that the main purpose of their presence in the country, defeating Isis, had been achieved.
Kurdish allies feared that this US move might leave them exposed to a Turkish military offensive, which has been long threatened by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon said four people were killed, including two soldiers, one civilian employed by the US military and a contractor working for the US military. Three other soldiers were injured.
While initial reports indicated an explosion, the spokesperson said, the incident was under investigation.
While the Pentagon confirmed deaths and injuries of its own employees and soldiers, Mr Erdogan said 20 people in total were killed.
Amaq, the Isis-affiliated news agency, said the blast had been carried out by an attacker with a suicide vest targeting the patrol. It is still unclear if the attacker was affiliated with the terrorist organisation.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, extended “deepest sympathies and love” to the families of those killed.
Manbij is controlled by a local military council led by Syria Democratic Forces, the predominantly Kurdish militia and US ally that is combating Isis in eastern Syria. Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, causing tension between Ankara and Washington.
Mike Pence, US vice-president, said both he and Mr Trump condemned the attack, reiterating that US troops had “crushed the Isis caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”
“As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of Isis to re-establish their evil and murderous caliphate — not now, not ever,” said Mr Pence.
Middle East foreign policy experts said the attack on US troops would weigh on withdrawal plans as military chiefs seek to pull out while protecting US forces. It also raised questions about whether Isis had really been defeated, as Mr Trump claimed.
Dana Stroul, a former foreign policy staff member in the US Senate and senior fellow at Washington Institute, noted a shift in language used by Mr Trump and administration officials, and that they now drew a distinction between Isis losing territory and the group’s total defeat.
If Wednesday’s attack is confirmed to have been carried out by Isis, it would “underscore” that the organisation is not defeated “in an enduring way”, said Ms Stroul.
“When Isis shows that it has still been able to launch attacks — and not only launch attacks, but do so in a town where the US military has been working alongside the Turkish military — it does raise a question over whether Turkey is equipped to defeat Isis, and it raises questions about US troop withdrawal,” said Ms Stroul.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that Mr Trump’s language had become “more precise”. “He’s talking about this being a territorial caliphate, rather than it being about Isis the organisation,” said Mr Alterman.
“Isis is a terrorist group that has a very small footprint and will be carrying out attacks in ones and twos for years to come,” he said. “It will morph in such a way that it can never be defeated. It won’t surrender. It won’t sign a peace agreement.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the incident demonstrated the need for the US to continue working with allies.
Bob Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey who serves as ranking member of the foreign relations committee, sent his sympathies to family members, and said the deaths were a “stark reminder” of the need for “a clearly developed and articulated strategy” to secure gains made in the “fight against terror”.
“That includes those on the front lines as well as our diplomatic and development corps,” said Mr Menendez. “The US must do more to work with our allies to develop a comprehensive approach that secures out long-term interests.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and critic of Mr Trump’s plans to withdraw, said he was concerned Isis had been emboldened by the claim of their defeat.
Michael McCaul, the Republican ranking member of the House foreign affairs committee, urged the president not to withdraw until “Isis is completely destroyed.”
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