Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday proudly proclaimed to an audience of America’s most senior diplomats that “ISIS has been defeated” and “the caliphate has crumbled.”
Yet he failed to mention that just hours before, ISIS had claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Syria that killed at least 15 people, including several US military service members.
It’s yet another example of how senior Trump administration officials continue to minimize the terrorist group’s strength in order to bolster the president’s case for withdrawing US troops from Syria, where the group still operates.
While the US under President Donald Trump has taken nearly all of the organization’s territory away, the Pentagon says ISIS still has about 30,000 fighters left in Syria and Iraq. That means the struggle against the group is far from over and remains very deadly — even if the administration won’t say so.
Wednesday’s attack is a case in point.
It happened in Manbij, a city in northern Syria where US troops support Kurds that fight ISIS in grueling land warfare. Last December, Trump vowed to remove all American armed forces — most of whom reside in the north — from Syria, not only because he said ISIS was decimated but also because he never liked the US presence there in the first place.
Yet the suicide bomb, which leveled a local restaurant US troops occasionally eat at as they patrol the city, shows that ISIS can still wreak immense damage. According to the Pentagon, two US troops, one Defense Department civilian, and one contractor helping DOD died in the explosion.
Until Wednesday, a total of two US service members died in action Syria since the mission began in 2014.
On Wednesday afternoon statement, Pence released a statement on the attack — after he gave his speech.
Statement from @VP on Manbij. Doesn't look like this bombing has changed either the assessment of ISIS's status or the withdrawal plan. pic.twitter.com/tp26cSdJGp— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) January 16, 2019
It’s also possible that the death toll of Syrians killed in the attack will rise, too, as witnesses say they’ve seen bodies and blood trails strewn about the area.
The carnage didn’t deter Pence from making his triumphant speech earlier in the day, though, even though he had reportedly been briefed on the attack beforehand.
Describing Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, Pence also told the audience, “No longer will the United States government pursue grandiose, unrealistic notions at the expense of the American people. Instead, President Trump is putting our nation’s security and prosperity first, and he always will.”
Trump and Pence could plausibly argue that bringing US forces home from Syria — where they’re less likely to get killed in an ISIS suicide bomb — is putting American lives first. But that’s not quite the same thing as saying ISIS is defeated.
And experts warn that leaving Syria will leave behind a vacuum that ISIS and other adversaries, including Iran, can exploit.
It sure seems as though the Trump administration will take US troops out of Syria
The US has already begun to pull out of Syria.
Last week, the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS abruptly announced it had started to withdraw from the country. However, it turns out only equipment — not troops — for now are on their home.
That came after weeks of mixed messages. Trump’s position remained clear, but two of his top aides — National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — said the US would stay in Syria partly to ensure ISIS’s complete defeat.
That no longer seems true. Pence’s comments indicate the president’s decision, as expected, won out.
Some Trump allies remain disappointed. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an enthusiast for America’s Syria presence, halted a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday to offer his thoughts on the ISIS attack and the planned withdrawal.
After mentioning that he believes he once ate at the Manbij restaurant that was targeted in Wednesday’s bombing, he said, “My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting.”
It’s still unknown if the ISIS attack aimed to hasten America’s withdrawal or if the pending troop removal emboldened it. What seems likely at this point is that no amount of ISIS-inflicted pain will change Trump’s mind.
Jennifer Williams and Aaron Rupar contributed to this report.