By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday, hours after American soldiers were killed in a northern Syria bomb attack claimed by the militant group.
Pence did not mention the deaths in an address to 184 chiefs of U.S. diplomatic missions gathered in Washington from around the world for a speech that sounded more like a campaign rally than a strategic overview of U.S. foreign policy.
“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence told the U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats, referring to Islamic State.
Earlier, a spokeswoman for Pence’s office, Alyssa Farah, said the vice president had been briefed about the soldiers’ deaths and expressed his sympathy.
There were mixed reports about how many Americans died in the blast in the northern Syria town of Manbij, with one U.S. official saying four were killed while others said two had died.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said 20 people were killed, including five U.S. troops.
A U.S. official who declined to be named said four U.S. troops had been killed and three wounded in the blast, which an Islamic State-affiliated site said was the work of a suicide bomber. A war monitor said 19 people in total had died in the blast
The attack comes nearly a month after U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise Dec. 19 announcement that he would withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria after concluding that Islamic State had been defeated there. His decision led to the resignation of U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who cited policy differences with the president for his leaving.
LACK OF PROGRESS
Some U.S. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were surprised and dismayed by the speech by Pence, who often paused during his remarks as if to invite applause that appeared to grow fainter as he spoke.
“We’re not used to being at campaign rallies,” said one U.S. official.
Despite talks of a second leaders’ summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, Pence acknowledged that efforts to convince Pyonyang to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway.
“While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” he said.
The vice president also criticized China’s “unfair” trade practices and loans to developing countries that pushed up their debt levels as it tries to gain greater influence in the world.
“The truth is that too often in recent years China has chosen a path that disregards the laws and norms that have kept the world state prosperous for more than half a century,” he said. “The days of the United States looking the other way are over,” he added.
Pence said the administration’s foreign policy was based on Trump’s “America First” agenda. “No longer will the United States government pursue grandiose, unrealistic notions at the expense of American people,” he said.
He acknowledged that Trump’s foreign policy was “different from what the world has come to expect” and that the United States faced different threats than during the Cold War.
“Today we are not up against one super power but several great powers competing with us for preeminence across the world,” he said, saying the United States faced a “wolf pack” of rogue states including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Tom Brown)