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Last June I visited "checkpoint zero," marking the frontline just outside the city of Manbij, Syria, where an Islamic States-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans on a routine patrol last Wednesday.
"Checkpoint zero" is manned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Syriac Christian militias and other forces created in 2015 to defeat the Islamic State.
However, there isn't the Islamic State on the other side of the frontline that "checkpoint zero" defends, but fellow Syrians; rebels backed by the Turkish military. The Euphrates Shield, as Turkey named them.
They are there to prevent Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from expanding further west of the Euphrates and toward the border with Turkey--a scenario the Turkish government considers as a threat because of what it claims is an existential link between the Kurdish fighters in Syria and the PKK in Turkey, who has been engaged in a bloody armed struggle with the Turkish state.
The Kurds and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies said they have every reason to fear that Turkey and allied Syrian rebel forces will act in Manbij the same way they did in Afrin, a Syrian city further north, where Turkish-backed rebels reportedly committed exactions against the local population.
- Three of the four Americans killed in the Islamic States-claimed suicide attack in Manbij, Syria, last Wednesday have been identified: Jonathan Farmer, a soldier, Shannon Kent, a sailor, and civilian and former Navy Seal Scott Wirtz, the BBC reported. The fourth victim of the explosion is an unnamed contractor, according to US Central Command. President Trump met with their families at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware during the weekend.
- A suicide bombing hit a U.S.-Kurdish-backed Syrian Defense Forces convoy in northern Syria today, making it the second suicide attack to target American troops in five days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says two U.S. soldiers were injured and five of their Syria Democratic Forces escorts were killed. The convoy was driving on the road of al-Hasakah – al-Raqqah near al-Shaddadi area. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, CNN said.
- In an unprecedented move, Israel confirmed latest attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. Israel's acknowledgment of its strikes reflect a shift in policy, with the country increasingly taking responsibility for specific attacks in Syrian territory after years of ambiguity, the New York Times said. The Israeli military said the targets included sites in Syria of the Iranian Quds Force, the branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Former U.S. Amb to Syria: “The Iranians understand” that if American soldiers are killed Trump will abandon Syria
Before I left for Manbij as an independent journalist last June I talked to Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.
The big picture: On Wednesday an Islamic State-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans, including two soldiers, on patrol in Manbij, Syria.
- "[President] Trump has been consistent about what he says about Syria. He does not want to keep American forces in Syria, he does not want to get too involved in it."
- "If there is an incident where ten or fifteen American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S., and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that."
- "We don't know who is responsible" for the death of Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar. Mr Dunbar, who was killed in an IED attack March 30, 2018, was the last U.S. soldier to die in Syria prior to Wednesday's attack. Also in Manbij.
News media are pondering whether President Trump will reconsider his plan to withdraw troops from Syria following the suicide attack that killed four Americans, including two US soldiers, on patrol in Manbij yesterday. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
So far, U.S. officials said there were no plans to reverse Syria pullout decision, CNN reported.
The attack emboldened critics of President Trump's assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, which was the reason invoked when he announced the troop withdrawal on December 19. They hope he will halt or reverse his decision.
"I hope the President will look long and hard at where he is headed in Syria," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.
But the President will certainly weigh in the possible consequences of any further American casualties in Syria. More American deaths will inevitably lead the public to demand that the troops be withdrawn.
What's next: In fact, yesterday's attack could paradoxically comfort President Trumps in his decision to pull out troops from Syria. And with the 2020 presidential election approaching, the President will not want to see more American casualties in the news.
Three U.S. soldiers have died in Manbij alone since America sent troops to Syria in 2015
The bomb attack took place in the town of Manbij, controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, while U.S. forces were conducting a routine patrol, officials said and Reuters reported.
This would be the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015.
Photos and footage on social media show a large explosion on a busy street and wreckages that include human remains.
Three U.S. soldiers have died in Manbij alone, so far. A total of four lost their lives since 2015, when the U.S. sent troops on the ground in Syria.
Last week, al Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militia network increased its control of the city and province of Idlib in northwestern Syria, at the expense of Turkish-backed fighters.
The Turkish government listed HTS as a terror group in August 2018 and last weekend carried out counter-terrorism operations against the group's alleged members in cities throughout Turkey, AFP reported.
Yes, but Abu Muhammad Al Julani, HTS leader, expressed his support for Turkey's military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Al Julani is a U.S. government wanted terrorist.
"HTS can not afford losing Idlib despite their in-fights with other groups. The only side that can protect them at this point will be Turkey," says Yousif Ismael from the Washington Kurdish Institute.
If HTS was to succeed and reposition Turkey from nemesis to potential tacit ally, it could make the task of reconquering Idlib harder for the Syrian regime and potentially give an al Qaida-affiliated group a say in Syria's future.
However, a preferred outcome for the Turkish state is for its allied armed groups to retain control of Idlib. The response to HTS' avances toward Turkey would therefore be a fin de non-recevoir.
- Al Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham militia network increased its control over the city and region of Idlib in northern Syria. Consolidation of territory control and fighting forces will help the Islamist-majority in control solidify their hold and render the task of reconquering Idlib harder for the Syrian regime.
- The Turkish government continued pushing back against U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton's statement that "the U.S. military would only leave Syria if Turkey guaranteed the safety of Kurds there," he said on his trip to Turkey last week. Sources said Turkish military is amassing more troops at the border with Syria, raising the prospect for an attack into Syria, in the region currently under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control.
- Former veteran with combat experience in Iraq and current Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, announced her intention to run for US president. A member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, she stood out for her position on the ongoing conflict in Syria, arguing against the U.S. removing President Bashar al Assad from power. She visited Syria last year.
- U.S. military has begun Syria withdrawal process…Well, not so fast. Today's initial media reports said that the U.S. military began the process for withdrawing its 2,000 troops in Syria. The Pentagon later said it has begun withdrawing equipment but not troops.
- "The U.S. military would only leave Syria if Turkey guaranteed the safety of Kurds there," U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton said, on his trip to Turkey this week, prompting a harsh Turkish diplomatic backlash.
- Russian troops arrived near Manbij, the Manbij Military Council announced today. Earlier this week, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces--to which the Manbij Military Council is affiliated--said they were in talks with Russia on the future of northern Syria and their safety from a Turkish military attack.
- Scoop: at this year's CES, the world's largest consumer electronic trade show that just ended in Las Vegas, I spoke with technology and social impact entrepreneurs with experience working with Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as Jordan as well as in Syria. They said they want an end to the armed conflict and stability, seemingly less obsessed about the "Iran threat" and the Assad-must-go focus prevailing in Washington.
We are about three weeks into President Trump's announcement that he will withdraw American troops from Syria and I caught up with Sameh, the young engineer from Damascus who is developing alternative and sustainable way of farming that could help bring food security to local populations in Syria. His story was published by the Atlantic Council last November.
Sameh told me what he thinks American troops pulling out of Syria means for his country and the future of his agriculture project.
- "A crazy turn of events for an area [northern Syria] everybody around me took for granted was going to be under the protection of the U.S.."
- "We don't know who's going to be in control [of northern Syria], which has been a recurring problem with the Syrian revolution…Since 2011 there has been too many people and too many parties involved, each with their own agenda for Syria. Islamic groups, fighters who don't have religion, fighters backed by Arab Gulf countries gulf and who follow their orders, groups backed by Turkey…Each come with their own propaganda."
- Three main opposition fighting groups are left in Syria. "Islamic groups, like HTC, groups backed by Turkey, and in between the Muslim Brotherhoods who lost in Ghouta and southern Syria and might have joined groups backed by Turkey and therefore support Turkey's policy in Syria…and the Kurds."
- The U.S. might be taking a stand for the Kurds and delaying withdrawal. "According to a recent statement [by the Trump administration], the U.S. wants to make sure that the Kurds are not going to be killed. What is the meaning of this big statement? Will the U.S. give weapons to the Kurds or seek an agreement with Turkey? Are they going to leave one single military base in northern Syria, perhaps near the oil wheels, around which Kurdish fighters would relocate?
- "My agricultural project [initially planned for northern Syria] is in wait and see mode. But we are still working on building the prototype, here in America."
But "if there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," last U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me.
With President Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria on December 19th, analysts and American media have deemed the presence of about 2000 troops in northern/eastern Syria controlled by the U.S.-allied and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces either as:
- Wholly insufficient compared with the number of troops and military assets from the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, or,
- In the word of Hagar Chemali, a former spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations, on CNN yesterday: "a very low-cost effort. You have about 2000 troops in areas that have already been liberated. They're there to make sure that things are rebuilt, that refugees can go back. And we know that ISIS is not completely defeated."
"Only" 2000 troops, but boots on the ground is not the full story about American military capability in Syria. On February 8, 2018, an attempt by pro-Syrian government forces to attack territory controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and where American troops were present was met with devastating American and coalition airstrikes and repelled, the New York Times reported. U.S. troops on the ground typically collect intelligence and call in airstrikes.
Characterizing American presence in Syria as a "very low-cost effort [...] in areas that have already been liberated," is equally inaccurate and misleading. As I saw the day of my arrival in Manbij last June, American troops go in patrols in groups of three Hummvees and go on foot patrols as well, reportedly. This makes them vulnerable to attacks. One U.S. soldier was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Manbij on March 30th. Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar was the fourth service member who has died in Syria since the U.S. sent troops to Syria in 2014.
"If there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me in May.