Syrian activists on Thursday reported intense airstrikes on the last area held by the Islamic State group in the country’s east where the organization’s control has been shrinking over the past weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday the airstrikes hit the 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles) controlled by IS in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour after US-backed Kurdish-led fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces scored gains in recent weeks.
Europe-based activist Omar Abu Layla of the DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group confirmed intense airstrikes were ongoing, adding that they were triggered by a counter-offensive carried out by IS during a strong fog.
The airstrikes came a day after a suicide attack carried out by IS insurgents killed 19 people, including four Americans, in the northern town of Manbij.
Two US service members and two American civilians were among those killed in the explosion while conducting a patrol, the US military said, an attack that came less than a month after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw troops from the war-torn country.
Islamic State’s claim of the attack calls into question Trump’s claim that IS has been defeated in Syria — his stated reason for pulling 2,000 American troops out of the country.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted in December in announcing his intention to bring back US troops “NOW.”
Vice President Mike Pence repeated the claim Wednesday, saying the Islamic State “caliphate has crumbled” and its network “has been defeated.” His comments in a speech at the State Department came shortly after the US military announced that American soldiers were among those killed in Manbij.
Trump’s shifting timetable for pulling US troops out of Syria, a country he described as “sand and death,” has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.
Critics have said a pullout was premature, that IS was still not defeated and a withdrawal could lead to a power vacuum that would fuel even more violence. It also led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Since then, US officials and Trump himself have suggested the withdrawal would be slower than initially believed. White House national security adviser John Bolton said two conditions would have to be met, including the protection of America’s local Kurdish allies in northern Syria, and the total defeat of IS.
Last week, the US military began pulling out equipment from the northeast into neighboring Iraq. No troops are known to have withdrawn yet.