Suicide Bombing Kills U.S. Troops In Syria, Mysterious S-92 Helicopter Seen Evacuating Casualties (Updated)

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in Manbij, which comes amid American plans to withdraw from Syria entirely.

via @Charles_Lister

Details are still spotty, but a suicide bomber has killed U.S. military personnel and others in a terrorist attack inside the northern Syrian city of Manbij. A mysterious gray Sikorsky S-92 helicopter linked to U.S. special operations forces in the region swooped in afterward to evacuate casualties. All of this comes as the United States moves ahead with plans to withdraw from the country entirely.

The attack occurred around 12:40 PM local time on Jan. 16, 2019 on a busy street in Manbij near a market. Unconfirmed reports from the U.S.-backed Manbij Military Council and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say that there may be more than two dozen dead and wounded, including up to four American troops. 

This appears to be the first major terrorist attack in the city proper since American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated it from ISIS in 2016. In March 2018, a roadside bomb near Manbij did kill a U.S. special operations forces member, as well as a British counterpart, but the perpetrators of that attack remain unclear. Another American special operator died during a mission died in Raqqa in 2016. There were also been two non-combat related fatalities among U.S. personnel in Syria in 2017. There have been other coalition casualties in Syria, as well, including French special operations forces member near Raqqa in September 2017.

CAUTION, the video below may be disturbing to some viewers:

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Manbij bombing through one of its official websites, Amaq, and said the specific target was "foreign" personnel. There is no independent confirmation of the group's direct involvement, but if true, this would be a clear indicator that the terrorists remain a significant threat despite having lost control of nearly all of the physical territory the "Islamic State" once held.

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the top U.S.-led force fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, "is aware of open source reports regarding an explosion in Syria," according to an initial statement from the official Twitter account for the Task Force's top spokesperson, U.S. Army Colonel Sean Ryan. "Coalition forces conducted a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time."

"U.S. service members were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today," a subsequent Tweet read, though it did not say how many fatalities there were in total. "We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time."

U.S. troops do conduct regular patrols within Manbij together with members of the Manbij Military Council and work closely with the SDF in and around the city. Both of these organizations are predominantly Kurdish.

After the attack, witnesses on the ground also spotted a gray S-92 helicopter arriving to evacuate casualties. This chopper is similar if not identical to one that has previously appeared in areas where U.S. forces and their local partners operate in Syria and was traced back to a U.S. based contractor. You can read more about this unique aircraft and its shadowy origins here.     

It still remains unclear exactly who exactly that contractor is flying this helicopter on behalf of, but this latest appearance would further suggest that a branch of the U.S. military, or U.S. Special Operations Command, is the customer. The United States relies heavily on contractor-operated fixed and rotary-wing aircraft for casualty evacuation, personnel recovery, and other airlift missions to support other "light footprint" missions around the world.

Regardless of the exact nature of the attack and its immediate aftermath, the incident underscores the complex and fluid situation in northeastern Syria and could have an impact on President Donald Trump's Administration's plans to withdraw all American forces from the country. After he first announced the pullout plan in December 2018, Trump had initially declared that the U.S.-led coalition had defeated ISIS

In the weeks that have followed, he has walked back those comments and other U.S. government officials have issued a string of often conflicting statements about the timeline and scope of the pullout. The current and future status of Manbij, which U.S.-backed SDF forces liberated in 2016, remains a contentious issue, in particular. The city itself is a strategic hub that links the eastern and western portions of Syria and is situated around 20 miles from the Turkish border.

Unfortunately, Turkey sees the Kurdish fighters that make up the bulk of the SDF as terrorists, has criticized the United States for supporting them, and has repeatedly vowed to crush the group by any means necessary. American special operations forces very visibly deployed to the area in 2017 to create a buffer between Turkish and SDF forces apart. 

After Trump's withdrawal announcement, Turkish forces moved closer to the city itself, as did groups aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and his Russian and Iranian benefactors. This has created an increasingly tense situation that you can read about in more detail here.

Congressional Research Service

A map of Syria showing Manbij in the north and the relative dispositions of the various parties in the country, as of Dec. 17, 2018. Since then, Turkish and Syrian government forces have only moved closer to the city.

More recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to wait for U.S. forces to withdraw before launching any new offensive, though he has threatened to proceed with his operation against Kurdish groups if that pullout ends up unreasonably delayed. The increasingly authoritarian leader has also agreed, in principle, to establish some sort of buffer between Turkish and Turkish-backed forces and the Syrian Kurds, though it's not clear if that only applies to civilians.

It remains to be seen how this might change the Trump Administration's position on continuing operations in Syria and how quickly, or not, it wants to pull American forces out of the country.  

Update: 3:30pm EST—

U.S. Central Command has now issued a formal statement confirming the deaths of four Americans – two U.S. troops, a Department of Defense civilian, and a civilian contractor – in Manbij. The statement does not confirm that the incident was a suicide bombing, simply stating "an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation." 

A separate statement from Vice President Mike Pence, however, did describe the incident as a terrorist attack. "As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever," the statement added.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com