U.S. troops were among those killed Wednesday in an attack in northern Syria, the U.S. military has confirmed to CBS News.
The U.S.-led coalition in Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve, only confirmed in a tweet that coalition members “conducted a routine patrol” in Syria on Wednesday, and said it was still gathering information.
A U.S. military official, however, confirmed to CBS News senior national defense correspondent David Martin reports by Kurdish media outlets that at least two Americans were among the dead in the city of Manbij, not far from the Turkish border, after an explosion hit a coalition convoy.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS News on Wednesday that President Trump had been “fully briefed and we will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria.” She referred all further questions to the U.S. military.
Manbij is just 20 miles from the border with Turkey, in an area held by Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. military coalition fighting ISIS. The terror group’s self-styled news agency Amaq claimed online that the attack was carried out by a member of the group wearing a suicide vest.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that 14 people were killed in the attack, including two U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. has about 2,000 troops still in Syria, though President Trump has ordered a withdrawal which is expected to be completed within four months.
Videos posted to social media in Syria showed a coalition helicopter hovering over the area before landing in a nearby soccer field. Another shows it taking off, and separate clips show what appear to be U.S. forces on the ground around the scene of the explosion.
U.S. plans to withdrawal troops from Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that President Donald Trump had reassured him in a phone conversation that the U.S. was in the process of pulling its troops out of Syria, appearing to tamp down tension between the two nations which manifested itself just hours earlier in a testy exchange of tweets.
Turkey wants the remaining American forces in Syria to come out, which would give the Turks free rein to launch offensive operations against the Kurdish militia in the war-torn country’s north. But many of those Kurdish fighters are U.S. allies who have been crucial to the fight against ISIS. The Trump administration has made guarantees for their security a precondition of the complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
Erdogan told his nation’s lawmakers on Tuesday that he had told Mr. Trump the U.S.-allied YPG Kurdish militia, “tortures the groups in Syria that do not depend on them,” and that his government had shared its evidence that America’s allies are in fact terrorists with the White House.
But the Trump administration has not backed away from its insistence that the Kurds of the YPG be protected. Nor has it officially backed away from Mr. Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria — though that process is happening far slower than the president initially suggested.
In the meantime, as CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported this week, there’s been an increase in the intensity of the battle against ISIS holdouts. The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are making the most of U.S. military support while they still have it.
Administration officials have stressed that the outcome of the battle against ISIS is not reliant on the physical presence of the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria, but as D’Agata reported, the Americans have played a vital role in the fight on the ground. They provide not only tactics, weapons and equipment, but crucially they also direct airstrikes against ISIS targets.
D’Agata and his team witnessed that for themselves on board the American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis last week. From the waters of the Persian Gulf, wave after wave of F-18 fighter jets rocketed into the sky to launch bombing raids against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish fighters who spoke to D’Agata in northern Syria are not only concerned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops could enable an ISIS comeback, but that Turkish forces will go on the attack the moment the last American soldier leaves.