US Lawmakers 'Blindsided' by News of US Troop Withdrawal from Syria
(Source: Voice of America News; issued Dec 19, 2018)
CAPITOL HILL --- The White House's announcement that U.S. troops are withdrawing from Syria caught U.S. lawmakers by surprise and angered some of President Donald Trump's top allies on Capitol Hill.

"I can't tell you that it is the right time [to withdraw from Syria], because I didn't know this was going to happen," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, told VOA. "I was not consulted, and I think I should have been consulted."

"It blindsided me," South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said. "I'm meeting today with the secretary of defense [Jim Mattis]. I don't know what they've done, but this is chaos."

In a tweet early Wednesday, Trump referenced the fight against the Islamic State terror group, saying, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

Lawmakers questioned the White House decision.

"Did the president do this with the advice of military leadership, against the advice of military leadership?" Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine said. "Does the military leadership now say that ISIS is such a non-threat that we don't need to worry about it, or somebody else is going to take care of it? Turkey? We don't know the answers to those questions."

Republican Senator Rand Paul, a member of the chamber's Committee on Foreign Relations, was one of the few lawmakers to praise the move.

But even senators who long have had misgivings about America's military campaign in Syria absent congressional authorization found the president's announcement perplexing.

"There's no question the ISIS, the caliphate, is shrinking, but they still have a presence in Syria," Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA. "I'm one who questions our authorization for our troops being there, but clearly this administration and the previous administration have taken the position that we need to have a military presence against ISIS. And my guess is that ISIS still has an influence in Syria.

"Dealing with terrorism, dealing with ISIS, we've made a tremendous investment, and we've got to make sure the job is done," he added.

"You could pull all the ground troops out and still be running missile strikes against the Syrian government, or air campaigns against the Syrian military, and I would find that objectionable without a congressional authorization," Kaine said. "So, I don't know that the removal of 2,000 ground troops means that we are not going to be engaged."

Graham, a fierce advocate of continued U.S. military engagement in Syria, said Trump is making a grave error.

"A lot of people applaud withdrawing troops no matter where they are from. [Former President Barack] Obama got a lot of applause when he withdrew from Iraq, but I have the same feeling about this that I did in Iraq — over time, this is not going to play well," Graham said. "I saw the president's tweet. I could not disagree more. I don't think they [ISIS] is defeated in Syria or Iraq, and I know they're not defeated in Afghanistan. I think this is a serious miscalculation to think that conditions warrant our withdrawal. We're all at risk from the emergence of ISIS."

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Syrian Kurds 'Gravely Concerned' About US Troop Withdrawal
(Source: Voice of America News; issued Dec 19, 2018)
Some Syrian Kurdish officials and residents voiced concerns Wednesday that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, announced earlier in the day by the White House, could affect the war on the Islamic State terror group and create yet another conflict in the war-torn country.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, in areas under the control of Kurdish forces in the country. The cooperation has been instrumental in the fight against IS.

U.S. troops, made up of mostly special operations forces, have been working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated alliance that has been an effective force in the war on IS.

An SDF official who requested anonymity told VOA that the U.S. statement surprised the alliance.

"Even U.S. officials working with us inside Syria were surprised by this. Unfortunately, this will empower Iran and increase its influence in Syria and beyond. And thus it will also weaken pro-American actors in Syria and in the region, including Turkey," the official said in a phone interview.

Empowering Assad

Ibrahim Biro, an official with the Kurdish National Council, an opposition group in Syria, said the U.S. move would most likely empower the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We were hoping that the U.S. presence would contribute to finding a political settlement in Syria," Biro told VOA. "But if the Americans are leaving, then al-Assad forces are likely to take full control of our region."

Since 2012, when Syrian regime troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebels elsewhere, Syrian Kurdish forces have been in control of areas in the northern and northeastern parts of the country.

Residents in northeast Syria expressed concern that an American withdrawal might result in an increased instability in the country and the region.

"There was a genuine thinking among people that the U.S. presence was a safety valve that prevented catastrophic wars in our region," said Sherin Ibrahim, a journalist at Arta FM, a radio station that broadcasts to northeastern Syria.

"But after the decision was made, we are now in a state of shock and gravely concerned about what could happen next," she told VOA.

Ibrahim added that "people in northeast Syria really hope that the U.S. administration could reverse its decision to withdraw from Syria. Otherwise, a humanitarian disaster would be inevitable."

In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, President Donald Trump said the U.S. had defeated IS in Syria.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he said in a tweet, using an acronym for the militant group.

But local officials and analysts in the region said the war on IS was not over and that the terror group still threatened parts of Syria.

"The decision will reflect on the fight against IS," said Amjad Othman, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF.

IS "has not been defeated entirely. But regardless of that, the phase after [IS] is even more critical to ensure stability. So the timing of this move is not good at all," he told VOA in a phone interview.

"This is a dangerous move," said Radwan Badini, a professor of journalism at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. "The war on [IS] is far from over. But a U.S. withdrawal from eastern Syria would certainly leave the door open on all options."

Fears of retaliation

Badini told VOA that northeastern Syria is "an ethnically diverse region with many people still sympathizing with [IS]. So the U.S. move to pull out from Syria could inspire some people to retaliate against others who cooperated with the Americans in the fight against [IS]."

Fighting continues in eastern Syria as SDF fighters are trying to advance against IS in its last major stronghold in the country.

Local military officials said the operation would continue until IS militants had been pushed out from the town of Hajin and several nearby villages, including Sosa, Baghouz and Shifa'a in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The development came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his plans for a new military offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria.

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a bloody war with the Turkish military for three decades. Both Ankara and Washington consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

The U.S., however, makes a distinction between the PKK and YPG, providing military support to the latter in its fight against IS. The YPG is the main element within the SDF.

"We will see how the U.S. will continue giving support [to the YPG]," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a former Turkish military commander.

"The U.S. can still support the YPG from the air or it can make a movement against a third party's intervention from its own military bases. If [the YPG] is able to protect the security structure that the U.S. will leave behind east of the Euphrates, then the U.S. would move accordingly," he told VOA.

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