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Bombing In Syria Complicates Withdrawal Of U.S. Troops


Four Americans and several others were killed on Wednesday by a suicide bomber in northern Syria. It is not clear yet who carried out this attack. But the Islamic State is taking credit, which raises new questions about President Trump's planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. He declared that the fight against the Islamic State in Syria has been won. And even after Wednesday's attack, Vice President Mike Pence repeated that message at the State Department.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we're now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners. And we are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled. And ISIS has been defeated.

GREENE: The voice of the vice president there. I want to bring in another voice now. It is Michele Flournoy. She was under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. Welcome back to the program.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what does this attack tell you about the state of ISIS in Syria right now?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think the - with this attack, ISIS was clearly trying to demonstrate both to its donors, its recruits, the world, that it is not completely defeated. It is still capable of launching attacks that can kill Americans and, you know, get worldwide media attention.

It's true that we have taken away massive amounts of territory from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But there are still, by intelligence estimates, thousands and thousands of fighters that are dedicated to the cause. So ISIS is certainly diminished, but it is not defeated.

GREENE: I want to be - really dig into one thing you said, that ISIS may have been trying to do something to garner attention and show that they're not defeated. Are you suggesting they may have been directly responding to President Trump's claim that they have been defeated?

FLOURNOY: I think it's quite possible. You know, one of the most important things for a terrorist group like this is to be able to create and maintain a sense of momentum and viability in order to gain resources, to gain people and recruits, to keep stature in competing with other groups. And so I think they needed to do something to show that they aren't gone. They aren't defeated. This isn't completely over.

GREENE: You know, I'm reminded of something that Ambassador Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said on our program. He was explaining why he supports the president's troop withdrawal. And he said, soldiers don't destroy ideologies.

And I wonder, is there an argument - if these couple thousand American forces who are still there are not having a clear impact, might it be better to get them out of harm's way and not be vulnerable to attacks like this?

FLOURNOY: I - you know, I agree with Ambassador Ford in the sense that, you know, you can use military forces to put pressure on an enemy to create a greater stability in the environment. Ultimately, the defeat has to be through political and economic and other means. But the problem is there's no coherent strategy from this administration.

You have the president saying, we're withdrawing right away. You have John Bolton, the national security adviser, saying, no, no. It's conditions-based. We're not rushing out. And then you have Mike Pence, vice president, saying yesterday, we're staying in the fight. And, you know, this isn't - you know, we're continuing.

And so there's no coherence, and there's no plan for how we will continue to make our allies on the ground effective against ISIS once we leave. The thing that bothers me most about this situation is when you put Americans in harm's way and they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, we owe them and their families and the nation a strategy and a plan that actually is coherent and makes sense. And I think the administration is all over the map on this. They have not presented a clear strategy and plan that merits the sacrifice of, you know, American lives.

GREENE: What is one key to a plan going forward that you see as really essential if, indeed, President Trump is going to go on with this troop withdrawal?

FLOURNOY: I think the key is a plan that says - that lays out, what are the other means that we are going to use to make our allies on the ground successful to hold the gains that we've sacrificed for, whether it's stabilization funding, whether it's continued training, whether it's air support and intelligence support, whether - you know, whatever it is?

We need to lay that out because right now the perception is we don't have a plan, and we're going to create a vacuum. And that's damaging not only to the current situation but to U.S. credibility with every ally we have around the world.

GREENE: Michele Flournoy is former under secretary of defense for policy under President Obama. She's also co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.