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Trump Syria Plan Prompts Questions     01/17 06:07

   The attack in the strategic northeastern town of Manbij highlighted the 
threat posed by the Islamic State group despite Trump's claims.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- A suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State militants 
killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American 
civilians, in northern Syria on Wednesday, just a month after President Donald 
Trump declared that IS had been defeated and he was pulling out U.S. forces.

   The attack in the strategic northeastern town of Manbij highlighted the 
threat posed by the Islamic State group despite Trump's claims. It could also 
complicate what had already become a messy withdrawal plan, with the 
president's senior advisers disagreeing with the decision and then offering an 
evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops.

   The attack, which also wounded three U.S. troops, was the deadliest assault 
on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.

   The dead included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, 
who have fought alongside the Americans against the Islamic State group, 
according to officials and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

   According to a U.S. official, one of the U.S. civilians killed was an 
intelligence specialist working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The other 
was an interpreter, who was a contractor.

   The attack prompted new complaints about the withdrawal and underscored 
Pentagon assertions that IS is still a threat and capable of deadly attacks.

   In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump said, "We have defeated 
ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." He 
said the troops would begin coming home "now." That plan triggered immediate 
pushback from military leaders, including the resignation of the defense 
secretary.

   Over the past month, however, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the 
timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will likely take several months 
to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.

   Not long after the attack Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated 
claims of the Islamic State group's defeat. Speaking at the State Department, 
Pence said the "caliphate has crumbled" and the militant network "has been 
defeated." Later in the day he released a statement condemning the attack but 
affirming the withdrawal plan.

   "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," he said.

   Others, however, immediately pointed to the attack as a reason to reverse or 
adjust the withdrawal plan.

   Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer and prominent voice on foreign affairs 
on Capitol Hill, said during a committee hearing Wednesday he is concerned that 
Trump's withdrawal announcement had emboldened Islamic State militants and 
created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.

   "I know people are frustrated, but we're never going to be safe here unless 
we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical 
ideology," he said.

   Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said the attack demonstrates the lethal 
capability of IS 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."

   Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by 
the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed 
Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from IS in 2016 with help from the 
U.S.-led coalition.

   But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main U.S. 
Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as "terrorists" linked to Kurdish insurgents on 
its own soil.

   The town has been at the center of tensions in northern Syria, with the 
militaries of two NATO members, the U.S. and Turkey, on opposing sides. The two 
sides began joint patrols around Manbij in November as part of an agreement 
aimed at easing tensions.

   Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and other international 
issues, said it's time for Trump to amend or change his withdrawal order to 
"something more consistent with the threat" in Syria.

   Others suggested the attack could trigger change.

   "Certainly the Islamic State follows the news closely, and observing the 
recent controversy over a potential withdrawal would incentivize them to try 
for a spectacular attack to sway both public and presidential opinion," said 
Jim Stravidis, a retired Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander.

   Trump, meanwhile, reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with 
about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.

   Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a 
conference call that the president remained "steadfast" in his decision not to 
stay in Syria - or Afghanistan - "forever." But the senator did not disclose 
the latest thinking on withdrawal timeline.

   Paul, who has been one of the few voices in the GOP encouraging the 
president's noninterventionist streak, said Trump told the group, "We're not 
going to continue the way we've done it."

   Video of Wednesday's attack released by local activists and news agencies 
showed a restaurant that suffered extensive damage and a street covered with 
debris and blood. Several cars were also damaged. Another video showed a 
helicopter flying over the area.

   A security camera showed a busy street, and then a ball of fire engulfing 
people and others running for cover as the blast went off.

   The names of the American victims are being withheld until their families 
can be notified.


(KA)

 
 
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