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US troops were regulars at Syrian restaurant where 4 Americans died

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The suicide bombing at a restaurant in what was believed to be a safe zone in northern Syria may have been influenced by the frequency of visiting US troops, according to a New York Times report on Thursday.

“They stop here for chicken and shawarma whenever they have a patrol in the city,” Jassim al-Khalaf, a local produce seller, told The Times. “People here are used to it, so it’s not a new thing to see them.”

The ISIS-suspected attack at the Palace of the Princes restaurant in the city of Manbij on Wednesday killed at least 15 people; including two US service members, a defense contractor, and a Defense Department civilian. At least one of the US casualties is believed to be a Special Forces soldier, according to US officials cited in the report.

The two-story restaurant, which reportedly served foods like grilled chicken, fries, and shawarma sandwiches, had a number of regular US troops visit several times a week. Troops would stop and order take-out sandwiches or park their vehicles in front of the establishment to dine-in, according to local residents in the report.

“I know that whenever they went to the city because there was a patrol or a mission, they’d pass by that restaurant,” a Manbij Military Council spokesman said to The Times.

US soldiers in a newly installed position near the front line between the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018.
Hussein Malla/AP

US lawmakers, including Republic Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also visited the establishment and the adjacent outdoor marketplace in July without body armor.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear about the loss of American soldiers and innocent civilians in a cowardly attack in Manbij, Syria,” Graham said in a statement on Wednesday. “I was in Manbij just a few months ago with Senator Shaheen meeting with Arabs, Kurds, Christians, and other groups who reject terrorism and do not want to be dominated by a foreign power.”

Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commanding general of coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, was also present during Graham’s and Shaheen’s trip and described the scene at the time as stable and “what winning looks like.”

The accounts described by locals stands in stark contrast to the military’s advice for troops who deploy into active warzones.

Service members who deploy to austere environments are warned not to grow complacent and are trained to modify their daily routines, including differentiating their patrol routes, to keep their habits unpredictable to the enemy.

Manbij was previously a stronghold for ISIS militants until 2016, after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces retook the city. The neighboring country of Turkey, which appears to be emboldened after President Donald Trump signaled a rapid pullout of US forces from the region, considers the Kurdish-composed SDF an enemy and announced it would launch military operations after the US withdraws.

The suicide attack follows Trump’s proclamation that the US would be pulling its roughly 2,000 troops out of Syria, citing the defeat of ISIS: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted in mid-December.

Vice President Mike Pence, who echoed Trump’s remarks about an hour after US forces confirmed it sustained fatalities in the attack, said in a speech that “the caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated.” In a later statement offering condolences to the victim’s families, Pence’s office said the US had “crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”

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