AMMAN: An Islamic State fighter detonated a suicide vest beside a restaurant in downtown Manbij, Aleppo province, on Wednesday afternoon, killing at least 15 people—including several American military personnel—and injuring more than 20 others, a Kurdish military source told Syria Direct.
The explosion struck a restaurant in the city of Manbij where American military personnel were meeting with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed, Kurdish-majority military force mostly based in northeastern Syria.
A statement by US Central Command on Wednesday evening said that two American servicemen, one Department of Defense civilian and and a contractor were killed in the blast. Another three Americans were injured, the statement read.
The explosion was later claimed by the Islamic State (IS) according to IS-affiliated Amaq Agency posts on social media Wednesday.
US and Kurdish forces had reportedly finished a routine patrol in Manbij—a city located in an SDF-controlled section of northern Aleppo province—when they stopped to meet in a local restaurant in the city’s downtown area, an SDF commander told Syria Direct on Wednesday afternoon.
The commander, who is based in the nearby SDF-controlled city of Ain Eissa, placed the initial number of dead at 15 with another 20 injured. The commander requested his name be withheld in this report as he was not authorized to speak to press.
The casualty count “includes Americans, our [SDF] forces and civilians,” he told Syria Direct, adding that “these numbers are expected to rise.”
Videos and pictures shared by local activists in Manbij appeared to show a man stop briefly in front of the Qasr al-Amarein restaurant near the city’s downtown where US and SDF officials were reportedly meeting. Moments later, a massive fireball engulfs much of the frame as nearly every person in view collapses to the ground.
“It was a huge explosion,” Sara, an eyewitness who saw the attack take place in downtown Manbij, told Syria Direct. “There was a lot of chaos. I saw American, SDF and civilians among the victims.”
Sara, and several other eyewitnesses, filmed what appeared to be an American H-92 helicopter evacuating victims from downtown Manbij shortly after the explosion.
A cell phone picture taken shortly after the explosion. Photo courtesy of Sara.
A statement released by the US-led international coalition on Twitter on Wednesday evening confirmed that US service members were killed in an explosion during a “routine patrol,” but did not provide specific details.
A representative from the US-led coalition did not elaborate further when contacted by Syria Direct.
Some 2,000 US military personnel, based in areas across Syria’s Kurdish-majority northeast, are currently withdrawing from SDF-held territory—including Manbij—following a surprise announcement from US President Donald Trump late last year that the US military would leave the country.
In a video message released on Trump’s official Twitter account last December, the president says that IS has been beaten back and defeated in Syria.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time in Syria,” Trump says. “We’ve won, it’s time to come back.”
US officials acknowledged on January 11 that withdrawals of military equipment were already underway, but that details for troop withdrawals were still being worked out.
Trump’s announcement in December blindsided US allies in Syria and sparked fears in Kurdish-majority territories east of the Euphrates River after repeated threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding a possible military operation against the SDF there.
The SDF, which Ankara views as having direct ties to the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have comprised the principal US-backed fighting force on the ground against IS in Syria since 2015. The coalition has rolled back almost the entirety of IS territory in eastern Syria since, including the hardline Islamist group’s former self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.
Manbij, one of the territories captured by the SDF from IS in 2016, is now the center of a geo-political standoff between US partner forces, Turkey and the Syrian government. US and Turkish forces still regularly conduct joint patrols in the city as part of an ambiguous “roadmap” aimed at de-escalation there.
Syrian army forces reportedly entered Manbij late last December following an invite from local Kurdish forces there, fearing an attack by Turkey.
This article has been updated to reflect ongoing developments.