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Four Americans Killed in Suicide Bombing in Syria. Has ISIS Really Been Defeated?

The largest American loss of life during our near-four-year involvement in Syria occurred earlier today in the city of Manbij in the northwestern part of the country.

U.S. Central Command has reported four Americans killed in a suicide bombing that has been claimed by ISIS.

A CENTCOM statement just released states that two U.S. military personnel, a DoD civilian, and a DoD contractor were killed.

CNN states that the DoD civilian was an intelligence expert who was with the troops collecting information on security and adversaries in the area.

"US service members were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today," said a coalition spokesman in an earlier statement.

Video on social media appeared to show U.S. military helicopters evacuating the wounded. Reports indicate that there were French and Kurdish personnel also injured at the scene.

Reuters reports:

A witness in Manbij said Wednesday’s attack had targeted a restaurant where U.S. personnel were meeting members of the local militia backed by Washington.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said 19 people had been killed in all, including four Americans. A militia source in north Syria said two U.S. troops had been killed.

Islamic State later put out a statement saying a Syrian fighter had detonated his explosive vest on a foreign patrol in Manbij.

Two witnesses described the blast to Reuters.

“An explosion hit near a restaurant, targeting the Americans, and there were some forces from the Manbij Military Council with them,” one said.

The Manbij Military Council militia has controlled the town since U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces took it from Islamic State in 2016. It is located near areas held by Russian-backed Syrian government forces and by anti-Assad fighters backed by Turkey.

The White House released a statement expressing condolences to the families of those killed in the attack.

By protocol, next of kin will be notified within the next 24 hours.

Since the beginning of the U.S. military involvement in Syria in 2015, there had been only two fatalities.

Local reports indicate that the bombing occurred inside a restaurant in Manbij where a meeting was being held.

ISIS quickly claimed credit for the attack through their official Amaq News Agency.

This is the second ISIS suicide bombing in Manbij in the past month. ISIS also conducted a suicide attack in its former capital of Raqqa — the first such attack since its liberation.

Today's bombing raises issues about President Trump's announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

After today's incident, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the administration's plan to continue to withdraw troops in a speech he gave to diplomats in Washington, D.C.

Predictably, Pence and Trump are coming under fire for saying that ISIS has been defeated.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham — a vocal supporter of U.S. military involvement in Syria — was critical of the administration's plans to withdraw after today's bombing.

So has ISIS been defeated?

Consider that Manbij in northwestern Syria is more than 150 miles from the small area of remaining ISIS control.

Manbij itself was liberated from ISIS by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) more than two years ago in August 2016. By most reports, much of the population has returned and life has returned to some normalcy.

During its occupation of Manbij, ISIS subsisted through its support networks in Turkey. The SDF Manjib offensive was intended to not only push them out of the area, but also to sever those Turkish support lifelines.

It's very likely that today's suicide bombing was conducted by an underground cell in Syria, or even operating from Turkey, rather than the area controlled by ISIS more than 150 miles away.

From a "command-and-control" perspective, in the next few days or weeks, ISIS will likely no longer control any territory in Syria.

In January 2015, ISIS controlled approximately 91,000 sq. km of Syrian territory. Today it controls less than 50 sq. km.

There have been exaggerated claims by supporters of U.S. military involvement that there are as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters remaining.

But a report last August by the DoD's lead inspector general to Congress claimed at that time that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated there were 13,100 to 14,500 ISIS fighters remaining in Syria, but only 4,000-6,000 in the U.S. military's area of operation in northeast Syria (p. 42).

DIA reported those number in July. A Canadian ISIS fighter recently captured by the SDF said there are only around 1,000 fighters left in the ISIS territory near Susah and the Hajin pocket.

There well may be thousands of ISIS fighters who were able to flee from coalition forces who are still located around Syria. It is likely that they will try to continue to conduct insurgent operations, much like today's suicide bombing in Manbij.

It's safe to conclude that ISIS is, in fact, defeated in terms of command-and-control. And it's equally safe to conclude that they will continue to conduct small-scale terror attacks for the foreseeable future.

But there are at present only around 2,000 American troops in Syria. For the U.S. to conduct an effective anti-insurgent operation would require tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers. That's very unlikely to happen in terms of both congressional and popular U.S. support.

A case can be made that some U.S. military presence should remain to protect our allied SDF troops from other actors in the region, namely Turkey and its proxies. Continuing to remain in Syria would make those U.S. troops targets for insurgent activity, likely resulting in more dead Americans in Syria.

And the deaths of four Americans today will undoubtedly have many asking why Americans are continuing to die in Syria at all.