A U.S. service member was killed in an improvised explosive device blast Thursday in northern Syria, U.S. officials said. It marked the U.S. military’s first combat death in the country, where its forces are embedded with local militia battling Islamic State.
The service member, whose name was not disclosed, was killed near Ein Issa, a town roughly 31 miles north of Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqah.
The town lies on the outskirts of regions controlled by Islamic State and is home to a military base of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of fighting factions dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The U.S. has given vital air support and training to the militia. A contingent of some 300 U.S. special forces operatives have embedded with the YPG since October 2015.
In recent months, local outlets reported the U.S. military had expanded its presence in the area, refurbishing bases so as to provide large-scale support to the Kurdish-dominated troops.
“I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement Thursday, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the coalition, sent his condolences to “this hero’s family, friends and teammates.”
“On this Thanksgiving, please be thankful that there are service members willing to take up the fight to protect our homeland from ISIL’s hateful and brutal ideology,” he said.
Earlier in November, the militias, which claim to comprise 30,000 fighters, announced a wide-scale offensive to take Raqqah, the Islamic State’s primary bastion in Syria.
The U.S. welcomed the operation, dubbed “Anger of the Euphrates,” and pledged to “enable local forces … in Syria to deliver ISIL the lasting defeat it deserves,” according to a statement by Carter.
Thursday’s loss follows a similar incident in Iraq last month, when an IED struck a vehicle near Mosul, killing Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, an explosives ordinance disposal technician.
U.S. military leaders insist that their personnel are not engaged in front-line combat, leaving it to local forces to bear the brunt of combat against the Islamic State.
However, the casualties illustrate the difficulty of fighting the jihadists, whose calling cards — IEDs, car bombs and snipers — allow them to stage attacks even in areas thought to be secure.
The U.S. service member did not die in a firefight, according to local journalist Arin Sheikhmous. Thursday’s explosion occurred in Shatt Jmeijeem, a village five miles south of Ein Issa that is not close to the current front line, Sheikhmous said in a conversation on the WhatsApp messaging service. It was “in the rear lines there are landmines and IEDs that haven’t been completely removed, and that’s where the incident happened,” Sheikhmous said.
Bulos is a special correspondent.