“No war is over until the enemy says it’s over,” James Mattis, the former Marine Corps General and recently resigned secretary of state, is quoted as saying. “We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” Mattis’s statement was made in 2012, well before President Donald Trump, in a surprise announcement on December 19, declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president wrote. He later expanded on that sentiment in a video message, posted on Twitter. “Our boys, our young men and women, are coming home now,” Trump noted. “We won.”
But a recent attack on U.S. forces in Syria, carried out by a suicide bomber which ISIS claimed was operating on its behalf, has led to an outpouring of criticism of Trump’s precipitous decision. “ISIS has claimed credit for killing American troops in Syria today,” Senator Marco Rubio tweeted in the aftermath of the attack. “If true, it is a tragic reminder that ISIS not been defeated and is transforming into a dangerous insurgency. This is no time to retreat from the fight against ISIS. Will only embolden & strengthen them.”
While Mattis’s words were a cautionary warning about premature celebration, Rubio’s sentiments, along with those who share his point of view, miss the point of the ISIS attack altogether. The U.S. was on the verge of withdrawing from Syria, something Rubio and others believe would give ISIS a victory. Why, then, would ISIS attack American forces in such a high-profile manner, creating the condition for a reversal of Trump’s decision and keeping the U.S. military in Syria for the foreseeable future?
As far as military patrols go, the one carried out by forces assigned to the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) in the northern Syrian city of Manbij on January 16 was as routine as it gets. SOJTF-OIR was authorized under Section 1209 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to provide assistance to the so-called “Vetted Syrian Opposition,” or VSO.