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Syria Daesh attack undermines Trump's victory claims

By AFP - Jan 17,2019 - Last updated at Jan 17,2019

A boy walks past the site of a suicide attack targeting US-led coalition forces in the flashpoint northern Syrian city of Manbij which killed four US serviceman on Thursday (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — Just four weeks after President Donald Trump declared victory over the Daesh group, the extremists claimed responsibility for a brutal attack in Syria that highlighted a very different reality on the ground.

Four Americans, including two troops, were among those killed when a suicide bomber hit a restaurant in the key city of Manbij in Syria's north — the deadliest attack against US forces since they first deployed in the war-torn nation four years ago.

Trump claimed on December 19 that the US and its allies had "beaten" Daesh, and he ordered an immediate troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.

While many Americans have cheered Trump's decision, fed up after years of costly and seemingly interminable conflicts, observers said Wednesday's attack shows he was too hasty.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the attack demonstrated how Daesh can now conduct a low-level insurgency in Syria.

This is "precisely how this jihadist organisation has adapted and gone back on the attack in years past," Lister said. 

"Trump's order was reckless and driven far more by domestic political concerns than it was by facts on the ground."

To bolster his argument that Daesh had been defeated, Trump highlighted how much territory the group had lost since it declared a "caliphate" across swaths of Syria and Iraq in 2014. 

But the extremists still hold small pockets of land in the Euphrates River Valley, and thousands of fighters are thought to remain in Syria.

"To suggest ISIS is 'defeated' because it no longer controls territory is to fundamentally misunderstand how ISIS and similar organisations seek to operate", Lister said, using an alternate acronym for the Daesh group.

 

‘No time to retreat’ 

 

Members of Trump’s own Republican Party have spoken out against his withdrawal plans, including Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a stalwart supporter.

“My concern about the statements made by President Trump is that [he] had set in motion an enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting,” Graham said. 

“I would hope the president would look long and hard with where he’s headed in Syria. I know people are frustrated, but we are never going to be safe here unless we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical ideology.”

Senator Marco Rubio, another Republican, said Daesh’s claim for the attack serves as a “tragic reminder that ISIS [Daesh] not been defeated and is transforming into a dangerous insurgency.”

“This is no time to retreat from the fight against ISIS. Will only embolden and strengthen them,” Rubio said on Twitter.

The American president did not immediately react to the US troop deaths, but Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on Trump’s declaration that Daesh was beaten.

“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence said.

In a statement, he later added: “We have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”

Pence added that the American people “can be assured” that the US would never allow ISIS to reestablish “their evil and murderous caliphate”.

In the weeks since he gave the withdrawal order, Trump and members of his administration have delivered mixed messages about the timeline.

National Security Adviser John Bolton last week announced conditions for a withdrawal that appeared to slow it for an undetermined amount of time.

Adding to the confusion, the Pentagon then said the US has already begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal” from Syria, but stressed this was only for “non-essential” military gear — and not troops. 

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