Trump's Syria policy takes a massive black eye as ISIS-claimed attack kills 4 US troops

Trump US militaryOver a year and a half into his tenure President Donald Trump has yet to visit American troops in a war-zone.Carolyn Kaster/AP

  • The single greatest loss of US military lives in Syria took place in an ISIS-claimed attack on Tuesday, just weeks after President Donald Trump declared the terror group a vanquished foe.
  • Trump took wide criticism within his own party for his snap decision to pull out of Syria, lost his invaluable defense secretary becuase of the move, and went back and forth on the specifics of the withdrawal as on-the-ground commanders urged him to stay the course.
  • ISIS is not defeated, and Tuesday's attack that killed four US troops gives Trump's reasoning for pulling out a massive black eye.

The single greatest loss of US military lives in Syria took place in an ISIS-claimed attack on Tuesday, just weeks after President Donald Trump declared the terror group a vanquished foe.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," Trump declared on December 19.

The next day, Trump walked back that comment by saying that "Russia, Iran, Syria & many others" would still "have to fight ISIS" after the US pullout.

In the following weeks, Trump's top advisers and military officials scrambled to make the hasty pull out work or steer him away from a withdrawal altogether. All the while, members of Trump's own party skewered his decision.

Read more: Republicans are furious over Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria

Jim Mattis, Trump's former defense secretary, resigned over the decision and took a swipe at Trump on the way out. For US allies around the world, Mattis had represented a steady hand in an otherwise turbulent presidency.

Somehow, during a post-Christmas trip to visit US troops in Afghanistan, commanders on the ground did what Mattis could not and convinced Trump to slow the withdrawal.

The US military's mission in Syria

US Marines howitzers SyriaUS Marines firing a howitzer in Syria.US Marine Corps

The US has never had a large military footprint within Syria. Former President Barack Obama first deployed "boots on the ground" in Syria to help train and equip rebel forces fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, and later launched a coalition that grew to 79 nations to tackle ISIS.

Read more: White House's shock request for strike options on Iran suggests an extremely dangerous possibility

But on Tuesday, a suicide bomber reportedly approached a group of US troops and killed more than a dozen people, including 4 US troops, Reuters reported.

To Trump's point, ISIS has lost the vast majority of its fighters and 98% of its territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS no longer controls rich oilfields or a sizeable population to tax and exploit. Russia, Iran, and Syria likely would have to defeat ISIS to rebuild Syria, as Trump says.

But ISIS is not defeated, as Tuesday's attack showed, and Trump's rationale for pulling out took a massive black eye in the form of the tragic death of four US lives.

ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. ISIS frequently claims responsibility for attacks around the world in an effort to promote the image of the withered terror group as a capable fighting force.

But while ISIS's ability to launch international attacks has weakened since its peak in 2015, the group still has thousands of fighters likely able to launch unsophisticated attacks like suicide bombings not far from their remaining territory.

The US will continue to hammer ISIS with airstrikes from nearby airbases, as it has done since 2014, and although the US started to move equipment out of Syria already, there's no indication Trump's announced pullout spurred the attack on Tuesday.

But experts say that without a ground presence of US troops to train and assist local forces, ISIS's army could reform and again threaten US lives in the region and around the world.
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