Jan 16, 2019 | 21:49 GMT

4 mins read

Syria: An Islamic State Attack Muddies the Waters as the U.S. Plans Its Pullout

The Big Picture

Although the tide of the Syrian civil war has shifted in Damascus' favor, the country remains a battleground for competing local, regional and global actors. As the United States mulls how and when to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, the pressing need to continue the fight against the Islamic State will be a major factor in Washington's calculations. Attacks like the Jan. 16 suicide bombing in Manbij underline the need for a long-term counterterrorism strategy in the area.

What Happened

The stakes over a northern Syrian city at the center of a tug of war between regional and global forces have just increased. On Jan. 16, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest outside the Kasr al-Umara restaurant in the city of Manbij, resulting in numerous casualties. According to local media, the blast killed nine civilians and a local fighter, while a U.S. official speaking to the media said the explosion killed four American troops and wounded three more. French and U.S. soldiers were reportedly meeting members from the People's Protection Units (YPG) inside the restaurant, although other reports suggested the U.S. forces were in the street just outside the restaurant. 

The Islamic State claimed the attack through its Amaq media agency, specifically noting that the assault had killed U.S. soldiers. The group has previously conducted attacks in Manbij, lending credence to its claim of responsibility for the Jan. 16 explosion.

Why It Matters

One of the main reasons given by President Donald Trump to support his desire to swiftly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is the belief that the United States and its allies have largely defeated the Islamic State in the country. However, events like the Jan. 16 attack in Manbij underline how the jihadist group remains a serious threat to forces on the ground in the area.

It remains unclear whether the Manbij attack, and the resulting loss of U.S. lives, will lead the president to accelerate the withdrawal to get American soldiers out of harm's way. On the contrary, the assault could persuade the White House to conduct the pullout more gradually, given the enduring threat the group poses to both the United States and its allies.


The United States and Turkey are ensconced in delicate negotiations over how to approach northeastern Syria in the long term. Washington wants to ensure that its main local ally against the Islamic State, the largely Kurdish YPG, is protected following the U.S. withdrawal, but Ankara has refused to countenance an autonomous Kurdish region on its southern frontier, arguing that the YPG is one and the same as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey categorizes as a terrorist group. As part of these talks, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford met his Turkish counterpart in Brussels the same day as the Manbij attack to discuss the details of a Turkish-supervised safe zone in northeastern Syria following on a phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump on the issue earlier this week. For their part, the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are the primary component, have said they will never agree to any safe zone controlled by Ankara, declaring that they will only accept a buffer zone under the auspices of the United Nations.

More than four years into the battle against the Islamic State, Washington and Ankara continue to disagree over whom to work with, and how, in countering the jihadist group. But regardless of whether the YPG has provided able foot soldiers for the United States, Washington's desire to preserve its strategic alliance with Turkey will ultimately tip the balance as U.S. military planners search for a regional partner. Until then, Washington will have some difficult questions to face about how to manage its withdrawal.


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