Deadly attack on US forces leaves Syria town fearful for future

The residents of Manbij fear more Daesh attacks. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019
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Deadly attack on US forces leaves Syria town fearful for future

  • “We come to the market but we are afraid. We go to work and we are afraid... we don’t know what could happen,” says resident
  • The four Americans killed in the blast were two soldiers, a civilian defense department employee and a Pentagon subcontractor.

MANBIJ: Charred walls, shattered windows, uncooked kebabs still on the counter — the blast that hit US forces at this small restaurant in northern Syria has left residents fearful for the future.

Wednesday’s suicide bombing, claimed by Daesh, was the deadliest to hit US troops since they deployed to Syria in 2014.

Nineteen people, including four Americans, were killed in the attack on the grill house in the central market of the flashpoint northern town of Manbij.

“We come to the market but we are afraid. We go to work and we are afraid... we don’t know what could happen,” says Jomaa Al-Qassem, eyeing the shops from his car along with his three-year-old son.

In front of the blackened storefront, armed security forces hustle curious onlookers away and are quick to prevent them from taking photos with their cellphones.

Behind its twisted metal exterior, a clump of raw red meat lies abandoned on a counter, covered with dust. Tables and cookware from the kitchen have been twisted into a tangled mess on the floor.

Run by a Washington-backed town council since the US-led coalition and its ground partners pushed out militants in 2016, Manbij has been a realm of relative quiet. 

The town was considered sufficiently secure that a group of top US military commanders and lawmakers strolled through the same market place without body armor during a tour of the area last summer.

Next to the blast site, Abu Abdel Rahman lifts an armful of red teddy bears out of his storefront display, carefully avoiding the shattered glass.

Just meters away from the restaurant, his shop was also hit by the blast.

But the US military presence in the town has been thrown into question after President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month that he would pull all American troops from Syria, claiming the Daesh had been “largely defeated.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime Trump supporter who was among this summer’s visitors, has been one of the most vocal critics of the president’s decision and was in Ankara for talks with top officials on Friday.

“I was at the door of my shop and saw a fireball come out of the restaurant. Then, there were body parts on the ground,” he told AFP, a red keffiyeh headscarf wrapped around his face to help fend off the cold winter air.

The four Americans killed in the blast were two soldiers, a civilian defense department employee and a Pentagon subcontractor.

The US Defense Department has previously reported only two American personnel killed in combat in Syria, in separate incidents.

The attack came as tensions between Washington’s Syrian Kurdish ground partner and its NATO ally Turkey flare.

Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a “terrorist offshoot” of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened an all-out offensive to clear the group from its border.

At the town’s entrance, security checkpoints manned by forces of the US-backed Manbij Military Council meticulously check vehicles and the IDs of people entering and exiting the town. Regular patrols move through the streets.

But for Malek Al-Hassan, it is not enough.

The 45-year-old was in the market that day to buy books for his children.

“When the explosion happened, I don’t know how we managed to escape,” he says.

“We hope the forces will be more vigilant at the roadblocks, and that they will work hard to prevent these infiltrators from committing these acts of sabotage,” he says.

After sweeping across swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the militants’ cross-border “caliphate” has been erased by multiple offensives and is now confined to a tiny embattled enclave in eastern Syria close to the Iraqi border.

But despite the stinging defeats, Daesh has proved it is still capable of carrying out deadly attacks using hideouts in the sprawling desert or sleeper cells in the towns.

One day after the blast, Naassan Dandan’s eyes well up with tears when he remembers the attack.

“I was outside when the explosion happened and was thrown to the ground,” says the man in his 40s, still clearing shards of glass from his nearby photography studio.

On the walls of his shop, child portraits he has taken throughout his career are covered in black dust.

“I saw the bodies — the dead and the wounded,” he says, as two young passers-by stop to lend a hand with the clean up.


Erdogan offers seminary exchange for Greek mosque minarets

Updated 29 min 21 sec ago
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Erdogan offers seminary exchange for Greek mosque minarets

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday suggested the mosque in Athens should open with minarets if the Greek premier wants to reopen a seminary in Istanbul.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was in Turkey this month and visited the disputed landmarks of Hagia Sophia and the now-closed Greek Orthodox Halki seminary.
Tsipras said during the visit to the seminary located on Heybeli island off Istanbul on February 6 he hoped to reopen the school next time with Erdogan.
Future priests of the Constantinople diocese had been trained at the seminary, which was closed in 1971 after tensions between Ankara and Athens over Cyprus.
Erdogan on Saturday complained that the Fethiye Mosque in Athens had no minarets despite Greek insistence that it would open.
The mosque was built in 1458 during the Ottoman occupation of Greece but has not been used as a mosque since 1821.
“Look you want something from us, you want the Halki seminary. And I tell you (Greece), come, let’s open the Fethiye Mosque,” Erdogan said during a rally in the northwestern province of Edirne ahead of local elections on March 31.
“They said, ‘we are opening the mosque’ but I said, why isn’t there a minaret? Can a church be a church without a bell tower?” he said, describing his talks with Tsipras.
“We say, you want to build a bell tower? Come and do it... But what is an essential part of our mosques? The minarets,” the Turkish president added.
Erdogan said Tsipras told him he was wary of criticism from the Greek opposition.
After the independence war against Ottomans began in 1821, the minaret is believed by some to have been destroyed because it was a symbol of the Ottoman occupation.
Ankara had returned land taken from the seminary in 1943 but there is still international pressure on Turkey to reopen it.
Erdogan has previously said that its reopening is dependent on reciprocal steps from Greece to enhance the rights of the Turkish minority.