Two coalition troops were killed Thursday in Syria and five others were wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated, the U.S.-led coalition announced Friday. The attack was considered a harbinger of increased tensions in areas where the U.S. is present.
A coalition statement Friday said the attack occurred at approximately 9 p.m. GMT, but did not reveal the location of the explosion nor the nationalities of those who were killed or wounded.
Later, a Pentagon official said one of those killed was a U.S. serviceman.
The U.K.’s ministry of defense also confirmed in a statement that one of its soldiers embedded with U.S. forces on a “counter-Daesh operation” was killed. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Three activists in the Arab-Kurdish town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are stationed, approximately 50 miles northeast of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, reported hearing a large explosion late Thursday night.
In its aftermath, residents said ambulances and security vehicles gathered in the area while the sounds of aircraft could be heard flying overhead.
Munir Hajji, an activist in Manbij, said in a conversation on Facebook Messenger on Friday that the explosion was caused by a mine attached to a pickup truck in the town’s center.
The truck was parked near the headquarters of the Northern Sun Battalion, a militia that is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a grouping of Arab and Kurdish militias that has become the United States’ main ground force in its battle against Islamic State.
But Turkey classifies the SDF’s militiamen as terrorists linked to restive Kurdish separatist groups at home, against which it has fought a decadeslong insurgency war.
Infuriated by Washington’s support for Syria’s Kurds, Ankara launched a wide-scale campaign in January, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, to rout the SDF from near the Syrian-Turkish border. The militiamen had hoped the area could become a Kurdish state on Syrian soil.
Earlier this month, Turkish special forces working alongside Syrian rebel groups captured Afrin, a Kurdish-majority enclave near Aleppo city. They now have Manbij in their sights, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a March 21 speech, even if it meant attacking U.S. troops working alongside the Kurds there.
“(U.S. troops) reportedly won’t get out of Manbij,” Erdogan said, according to Turkish state news operator Anadolu. “You have no right to be there in the first place. Why are you coming here from 11,000 kilometers? Are these your lands?”
The dispute has intensified despite attempts by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to reach an agreement with Ankara on Manbij, including a proposal for joint U.S.-Turkish patrols and removal of all SDF elements and associated administrative bodies in the town.
The attack in Manbij came hours after President Donald Trump said the U.S. would be “coming out of Syria very soon,” contradicting recent Pentagon statements referring to a long-term U.S. presence in the country.
“We are knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” said Trump in a speech in Ohio on Thursday, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“We are going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land. … But we are going to be coming out of there real soon. We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
He added that the U.S. had spent “$7 trillion in the Middle East.”
“And you know what we have for it? Nothing.”
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