News Brief: U.S. Troops To Leave Syria, Courts Deal Setbacks To Asylum-Seekers

Dec 20, 2018
Originally published on December 20, 2018 10:45 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. President Trump says that U.S. troops are going to be leaving Syria.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. The president has been saying that he wants to withdraw from Syria since he ran for office. And then here he is back in March.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And by the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.

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TRUMP: Very soon - very soon we're coming out.

KING: Then yesterday he tweeted, quote, "we have defeated ISIS in Syria." That caught a lot of people in Washington by surprise, as did the announcement that more than 2,000 American troops are going to be coming home.

GREENE: OK, let's start here with NPR national security correspondent David Welna. And David, you were actually at the Capitol as this news about Syria was breaking, right?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: I was, indeed.

GREENE: And so what was the reaction?

WELNA: Well, you know, it was not great. Even though Congress never actually declared war in Syria against ISIS, lawmakers have been funding military action there for the past four years. And they feel that they should be consulted about things like pulling more than 2,000 U.S. troops out of the - of Syria.

But, you know, Trump's decision to do that really blindsided members of Congress. Not even Jim Inhofe, the Republican who's the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was told about the president's withdrawal plans beforehand. I talked with Inhofe at the Capitol. And here's what he told me.

JIM INHOFE: I was somewhat at a disadvantage because I do chair the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I was not aware that it's happening. I think that we should have been aware of it. And this is - apparently it was a decision by the president. And I want to find out from him what led to that decision 'cause I don't know.

WELNA: And that's what a lot of other Republican senators told Vice President Mike Pence as well when he went to the Capitol yesterday to have lunch with them. They - some of them were saying if President Obama had done something like this, they'd all be up in arms about it. Some - some senators did express support for President Trump, saying that if we don't need to have American troops on the ground in Syria, well, they shouldn't be there. But generally, I think the sentiment was pretty shocked up on the Hill.

GREENE: David, can I just ask you about this announcement because isn't announcing a troop withdrawal exactly what President Trump said he would never do? Like, he criticized his predecessors for, you know, sending signals to the enemy on the ground as he would talk about.

WELNA: Yes, it is. But of course, pulling troops out of Syria was also a campaign promise that - that Trump made, much like President Obama made a promise to pull troops out of Iraq. And I think that the concern on the Hill is that by pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, it's going to leave some of the United States allies there sort of high and dry, especially the Kurds. I heard this yesterday in some detail from Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina. This is what he told me.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think it's incredibly dangerous. People celebrate when troops come home, including me. But they've got to be under the right conditions. I was in Syria just a few months ago. The 2,200 American soldiers, they're an insurance policy against the rise of ISIS. They're not defeated. They've been hurt. But the biggest loser are our Kurdish allies. Now they're subject to being overrun by Assad, Iran, Turkey.

WELNA: Yeah, Turkey says that it's going to send troops into Syria. And the presence of American troops there has pretty much kept them from doing that. And now the Kurds I think are very worried that the Turks are going to come if the Americans leave.

GREENE: And maybe target the Kurds, if the Turks do come there.

WELNA: Exactly.

GREENE: How soon do we think this might happen, David? Did the president give any hint?

WELNA: No hint. There's talk that this might happen in 30 days. But the White House is not saying what the details are. They're saying talk to the Pentagon. The Pentagon says talk to the White House.

GREENE: Everyone says talk to someone else. NPR's David Welna. David, thanks for this. We really appreciate it.

WELNA: You're welcome, David.

GREENE: OK, so let's talk about what this actually means on the ground. What will be the effect of this pullout of U.S. troops from Syria?

KING: Yeah, it's a big question. Around 2,200 U.S. troops have been fighting ISIS in Syria alongside local Arab and Kurdish fighters. And even in the past couple of days, high-ranking administration officials were saying the U.S. troops were needed there to defeat ISIS. So critics of this move worry that the withdrawal is going to send the message that the U.S. doesn't stick by its allies. And they are also very worried about a power vacuum.

GREENE: OK, so some mixed signals with the administration saying U.S. troops are needed now that U.S. troops are leaving. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Beirut, and she monitors what happens in Syria for us all the time. And Ruth, what's the reaction on the ground in Syria to this announcement?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, shock - I mean, the main thing that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.'s Kurdish ally there, is saying is, look, ISIS is not defeated. There's still a heated front line in the northeastern town of Hajin, for example. And so they say - they just put out a statement saying the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria will damage that fight. That statement - I think it's notable that the statement only came through this morning.

In the first hours after the announcement there was kind of silence. People - some say privately that they were reeling in shock. And there's a deep anger and sense of abandonment here. You know, these - this militia have been loyal allies. They've lost hundreds, maybe thousands of people as the U.S. backed ground force to fight ISIS. And so they feel abandoned.

Civilians there are in panic too. We reached Ahmed (ph). He's 20, and he's studying to be an electrician. He lives in a part of Raqqa, the Syrian city that was destroyed in the war against ISIS. And I asked him how people feel about this decision.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here he's saying, look, this is all anyone's talking about here. And now there's a deep fear about who's going to take control of Raqqa after the U.S. leaves. They don't know, for example, if the Syrian regime is going to move in. Or perhaps Turkey might want to take this area - or maybe no one. And he's worried that within this vacuum of power, extremists will take hold in the same way that they did in Iraq after the U.S. pulled out of the Iraq War there.

GREENE: And Ruth, I mean, you've been in Syria not so long ago and hearing from people - like, talk more about what's at stake here for Syrians with this decision from Trump.

SHERLOCK: Well, there's various aspects to this. And one of those is that it's not just U.S. military troops that are leaving. There are State Department officials and other American actors that have been working to - on the humanitarian situation there. So prior to this White House decision, they all said, look, it's really important to stabilize these parts of Syria, to stop ISIS from coming back.

As I mentioned, Raqqa was almost totally destroyed in the war. So there's hundreds - tens of thousands of people without homes. And the State Department's been sponsoring programs to help - restarting schools and funding a central emergency services. Now, the U.S. says some funds remain until the next year, but ultimately that too is winding down. So it's leaving people in a desperate humanitarian situation.

GREENE: And David Welna brought up Kurdish allies, I mean, who've been fighting alongside the United States. Could this now leave a vacuum, if the U.S. leaves, that might allow Turkey to come in and put Kurdish forces in danger?

SHERLOCK: Yeah, well, with the U.S. leaving, many believe the Turks' may - very little stands in the way for the Turks to try to move into this part of Syria. The Turkish defense minister is reported as saying that Turkey plans to bury the Kurdish militias in the ditches they've dug to defend themselves when the time comes.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Ruth Sherlock talking to us about the situation in Syria from her post in Beirut. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

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GREENE: All right, there were two new court rulings that have dealt setbacks to the Trump administration's crackdown on asylum seekers.

KING: Yeah, that's right. A judge in San Francisco ruled yesterday that immigrants can apply for asylum regardless of how they enter the country. And then a judge in Washington, D.C., said it is Congress - not the White House - that sets the standard for who's granted asylum.

GREENE: And one person who's been following this is Lily Jamali from our member station KQED in San Francisco. She's a cohost of The California Report. Lily, welcome.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: It's good to be with you both.

GREENE: Well, let's tick through these two court decisions. First one came down in a San Francisco courtroom, right?

JAMALI: Right. So President Trump issued that proclamation just after the midterm election, back when the most recent migrant caravan hadn't yet reached the U.S.-Mexico border. And the argument is there's a crisis. People with no basis for being here are flooding the border. And so the rule the president issued tried to make it so that migrants crossing into the U.S. between official points of entry would no longer be allowed to apply for asylum.

The ACLU, an immigrant rights group, said, hold on a second. This is not unchartered legal territory. Congress has specifically looked at this. It's enshrined in the law, the right for people to apply for asylum no matter how they got here.

And federal Judge Jon Tigar here in San Francisco agreed with that argument in a ruling last month. The temporary restraining order he issued then was set to expire overnight. And this most recent ruling from yesterday puts a longer-term halt, an injunction, on this policy as the case works its way through the courts.

GREENE: OK, so for now, still in place the idea that no matter where you cross, how you come into the country, you can still apply for asylum. So that's one issue. There was a separate issue that was dealt with by a judge in a courtroom in Washington, D.C. What was that?

JAMALI: That's right. And that one, it was once against again the ACLU among those filing suit against the administration in response to a policy from back in June, one that came from Jeff Sessions, who was the attorney general at the time. He said claiming to be fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence doesn't make someone eligible for asylum.

Well, yesterday a federal judge in Washington ruled that there was no legal basis for that order, that it is up to Congress and not the executive branch to decide who gets asylum.

GREENE: OK, so the Trump administration, Lily, has been - I mean, this has been part of their larger argument, that there are too many people who are crossing the border and coming into the United States illegally. What impact, practically, might this have on President Trump and his policies?

JAMALI: Well, without a doubt these are setbacks for the administration's approach on immigration. We are now up to at least four federal court decisions blocking the president's immigration crackdown. And the argument that seems to be working for the plaintiffs here isn't so much a humanitarian appeal as it is an argument about the separation of powers among the branches of our government.

The courts have been a key check on the administration's attempts to remake immigration law as we know it by executive decree. And both of these judges are saying this turf belongs to Congress. It is up to the Congress to make these laws. And if the president wants different laws, he's got to go through Congress.

GREENE: And briefly, I mean, can the administration appeal in these cases?

JAMALI: They can. So far, the White House press secretary has issued a statement calling that ruling out of Washington reckless, the one about asylum seekers fleeing gangs and domestic violence. The language in that statement makes it very clear they're going to keep on fighting on the case here in San Francisco. The administration had already asked the Supreme Court to look at Judge Tigar's first order, that temporary restraining order, which an appeals court here has backed.

GREENE: All right, Lily Jamali in San Francisco, thanks.

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