After Manbij attack, Trump's Syria pullout looks riskier than ever

After Manbij attack, Trump's Syria pullout looks riskier than ever
Comment: The Manbij attack is clear evidence that contrary to Trump's statements, Islamic State has not been defeated, writes Sam Fouad.
5 min read
18 Jan, 2019
The suicide attack targeted a restaurant in Manbij, popular with US troops [Getty]
On January 16, four Americans were among 19 killed in Manbij, Syria, in a suicide bombing that was claimed by the Islamic State (IS).

The attack targeted American troops while they were inside the Palace of the Princes, a restaurant Americans frequently visited during their patrols of the town.

The attack also came weeks after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all troops from Syria, declaring that
IS had been defeated and that there was no longer a purpose for American troops to be stationed in Syria.

This bombing has raised further questions about President Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw US troops, and is resulting in an entrenchment of sorts between President Trump, who still wants to withdraw, and other politicians and foreign policy leaders, who believe American troops should remain in Syria.

When Trump announced the troop withdrawal, then secretary of defense, Jim Mattis,
promptly resigned in an act of protest.

Since the January 16 attack that claimed the lives of two troops, a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a military contractor, in addition to at least 15 Syrians, critics of Trump's withdrawal - 
including Republicans - have come out against moving forward with his plan.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been a key Trump ally, implied that Trump's withdrawal plan encouraged IS to attack.

Immediately after the attack, Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on the notion that IS was defeated

"My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we're fighting" Graham said.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio also chimed in on the matter, saying if IS' ownership of the attack is true, then "it is a tragic reminder that IS has not been defeated and is transforming into a dangerous insurgency. This is no time to retreat from the fight against IS. [It] will only embolden and strengthen them."

Other Republican lawmakers however, agreed with the president that this attack should accelerate troop withdrawal, not cause them to remain.

Republican Senator Rand Paul, after
meeting with President Trump shortly after the bombing in Syria, said, "I have never been prouder of President Donald Trump. In today's meeting, he stood up for a strong America and steadfastly opposed foreign wars. Putting America First means declaring victory in Afghanistan and Syria. President Trump is delivering on his promises."

Furthermore, immediately after the attack, Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on the notion that IS was defeated, and that it was time for American troops to leave Syria.

"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 IS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate - not now, not ever."

So where does this leave the planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria?

As is typical of a dysfunctional administration, most of it depends on who you ask.

In addition to the opposing views on a troop withdrawal, there's also confusion around the logistics of a pull-out, as well as disparate voices from other groups who would be affected by a US exit from the area.

State and Defense Department
officials disagree over the interpretation of the president's guidance on withdrawal from Syria. According to a US government source who wishes to remain anonymous, "There is a huge gap between what Trump thinks is happening, what is actually being worked on at the Pompeo-Bolton level, and what DoD's orders currently are."

Furthermore, the concern about Turkey attacking the US' Kurdish allies in the event of a troop withdrawal has also elicited responses from American, Turkish, and Kurdish officials.

It seems that President Trump remains steadfast in his efforts to withdraw US troops

Since Trump's decision, which reportedly came after he had a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House has been attempting to secure guarantees from Turkey that they won't attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key American ally in Syria.

In response to the attack on Americans in Manbij, Erdogan has argued that it could have been linked to Trump's decision to withdraw troops from the region. Even so, the Turkish president relayed confidence in Trump's anticipated departure from Syria, saying that "Trump will not turn back due to this act of terrorism because I have seen his determination to withdraw."

Should the president reverse his course, he continued, "this will be a victory for IS".

The SDF has also responded to this attack by saying it is ready to help create a safe zone, as suggested by President Trump, in its region across north and east Syria. They have said that such a zone must have "international guarantees… that would prevent foreign intervention", quite clearly suggesting the risk of a Turkish attack if American troops were to withdraw.

Even with all these opposing and contrasting voices and opinions between American politicians and officials, and various foreign allies and partners in the region, it seems that President Trump remains steadfast in his efforts to withdraw US troops.

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has said, "we are determined to finish that off and then hand the battle off to our indigenous partners", in clear reference to withdrawing American troops from Syria.

His statement seems to imply that they will be counting on the SDF to hold their ground and continue the fight against IS in their wake, but also that the US military seems to believe that Turkey will not be invading the area after an American withdrawal.

It remains to be seen exactly how this conflict - which has widespread repercussions within American political and military leadership, as well as for US partners on the ground - will play out in the wake of the Manbij bombing.

For now, however, it seems that President Trump will indeed remove American troops, while also attempting to get reassurances from Turkey that they will remain at bay, as well as from the SDF that they will continue to fight the remnants of IS in the region.

Sam Fouad is a political consultant and a global affairs analyst based in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @_saf155

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.