The United States suffered its first military casualty in Syria in the operation to defeat the Islamic State.
“I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave servicemembers has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement. “It is a painful reminder of the dangers our men and women in uniform face around the world to keep us safe.”
“Please keep this servicemember’s family, friends and teammates in your thoughts and prayers, and this Thanksgiving I hope you will join me in expressing thanks to all of our dedicated troops who selflessly protect us every day,” Carter added.
Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement that the service member, who was not identified, died from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device “in the vicinity” of Ayn Issa, the town in northern Syria where the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the launch of the “Wrath of Euphrates” offensive on Raqqa at the beginning of the month.
“The entire counter-ISIL coalition sends our condolences to this hero’s family, friends and teammates,” the commander of OIR, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said in a statement. “On this Thanksgiving, please be thankful that there are service members willing to take up the fight to protect our homeland from ISIL’s hateful and brutal ideology.”
The statement said further information would be released “as appropriate.”
The Pentagon has not been specific about the ground movements of about 300 U.S. troops in Syria, other than to note they’re acting in an advisory capacity. Kurdish news sources have released photos of U.S. Special Forces spotted with SDF forces, which are composed of Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are now within about 12 miles of Raqqa, a Pentagon spokesman said this week.
Press secretary Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday that SDF forces “continue to seize and clear territory north of Raqqa in preparation for that city’s isolation and eventual liberation.”
“Those SDF forces are now 20 kilometers from Raqqa. The SDF has essentially closed a pocket of ISIL forces now encircled by their advance and they are clearing that pocket in preparation for future operations,” Cook said, adding that “in the last 24 hours, the coalition has conducted 11 strikes delivering 35 munitions in support of the SDF’s drive on Raqqa.”
Cook said taking back Mosul and Raqqa, while significant achievements, are alone “not sufficient to dealing with the ISIL threat.”
“That’s why we have to deal with the metastasis of ISIL in places like Libya, in places like Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it may pop up — they may pop up around the world,” he said. “…But it will be a different kind of threat, a different kind of challenge, and maybe less military at that point.”
Townsend warned last month that there was an urgency to taking Raqqa as “an external plot” for a terror attack is being fomented in the ISIS capital.
“There’s an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating central in — centralized in Raqqa,” Townsend said.
Pressed on what that external threat could entail, Townsend said he didn’t want to discuss specific intelligence but “we actually aren’t sure how pressing it is, and that’s what’s worrying us.”