The News Memo
Stories this week:
U.S. to Withdraw Troops from Syria; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis Resigns
In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, U.S. military officials said that all of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria will be leaving within the coming weeks. Addressing the announcement, President Trump tweeted on Wednesday: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” President Trump promised repeatedly during his campaign that he would bring U.S. troops home after defeating ISIS. Details of the withdrawal plan were not discussed.
U.S. troops have been present in Syria since 2014, when they began a sustained airstrike campaign. Although ISIS has largely been defeated in the region (they hold about 2% of the territory they once had), there are roughly 2,000 fighters cornered in the southeastern part of Syria that have proven difficult to eliminate. Analysts also estimate there are somewhere between 20,000-30,000 ISIS members still present in Syria and Iraq, mostly operating underground. The U.S. military has primarily been training, financing, and working in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military group of Kurdish and Arab fighters. It has proven to be the most effective strategy against ISIS.
In a subsequent story on Thursday, Trump administration officials said that the President has ordered a reduction of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by about half. There are currently around 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. The decision to remove troops from Syria and Afghanistan represents a sharp change in foreign policy under President Trump, who has voiced his dislike for American casualties and the financial burden of military engagements.
How have military officials and lawmakers reacted?
The announcement received intense opposition from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as Pentagon members and U.S. military officials, who were taken by surprise at the decision. Senator Lindsey Graham (R., SC) in reaction to the announcement, said, “If Obama had done this, all of us would be furious.” Many officials compared Trump’s decision to President Obama’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011, which created the vacuum in the Middle East that allowed ISIS to emerge as a powerful force in the region. Military officials said they will continue to use economic sanctions, diplomacy, and possibly airstrikes to contain and combat the remaining ISIS factions.
In response to the withdrawal from Syria, Defense Secretary James Mattis submitted his resignation on Thursday, writing in his letter to President Trump that he has a right to someone “whose views are better aligned with yours.” Mattis, a former Marine Corps General, is one of the original cabinet members appointed by President Trump, and was praised by both sides of the political aisle as an excellent choice. His departure date is set for the end of February 2019.
Why is there pushback to President Trump’s decision?
Many officials are concerned that vacating Syria too early will give room for ISIS or other insurgent groups to regain power and influence in the region; they also fear that Iran, a foe of the U.S., will be allowed to gain more influence in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved of the decision on Thursday, saying “Donald’s right.” Russia and Iran are allies and have worked together to support the Syrian government.
Further, many see the withdrawal as an abandonment of the Kurdish forces, and are concerned that removing U.S. military presence will pave the way for Turkey to go on the offensive. In fact, President Erdogan of Turkey has made clear in the past few days that he is planning to attack the Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kurds are an ethnic minority group spread out across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, who are fighting for increased human and political rights that have largely been denied. Turkey views the Kurds as a terrorist insurgency group aimed at destabilizing the region.
Border Wall Funding Remains Uncertain, Criminal Justice Reform Passes with Ease
Government Shutdown Looms Over Border Wall Funding
Amid a whirlwind week that included Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation and escalating Russia investigations, President Trump’s rally cry remains the same: if Congress does not pass his proposal of $5 billion in funding for his campaign promise of a border wall, a Christmastime government shutdown is imminent.
In an effort to avoid a government shutdown, Republicans proposed a Senate bill to fund the government until February 8 so that the border wall budget discussion could be postponed into the new year. While this short-term spending bill passed in the Senate on Wednesday with Democratic support, President Trump indicated that he would not sign it if it didn’t include funding for the wall. Thus, House Republicans passed an amended bill on Thursday that included funding for the wall. The Senate is set to vote on the bill today (Friday). President Trump, in a Tweet on Friday morning, said, “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that lasts a very long time.”
What agencies/departments would close?
Since the short-term spending bill that is currently funding the Homeland Security Department (this includes the Justice, Interior, Housing, State and Agriculture departments) expires on Friday at midnight, roughly 380,000 federal workers would be required to take unpaid leave (also known as furlough) in the event of a government shutdown.
In addition, more than 420,000 essential workers, such as Border Patrol Agents, would have to continue working without pay. If President Trump does not sign the short-term spending bill to fund the government until February 8 by Friday (today), the government shutdown will begin on Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
Criminal Justice Reform Bill
While division and tension seem to highlight many headlines in today’s climate, the First Step Act signed into action Thursday brought Republicans and Democrats together in overwhelming agreement.
The bipartisan measure has been in the works since shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, spearheaded by Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. Now it simply needs President Trump’s approval, which he has indicated he will give.
The bill only applies to the federal prison system of about 180,843 inmates, a small percentage of estimated 2.2 million imprisoned in the U.S. jail and prison. Lawmakers, however, hope the impact of these reforms have the potential to shape the future of criminal justice at all levels of government.
Main highlights of the bill:
Russian Social Media Election Influence: New Report
A new report released on Monday by the Senate Intelligence Committee shows Russia not only tried to influence the 2016 elections through Facebook and Twitter, but with just about every large social media platform: YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and even Paypal. The authors of the report criticized the late reaction from the implicated tech firms, calling it a “belated and uncoordinated response.” The report was assembled by the University of Oxford's Computational Propaganda Project, as well as a social analytics firm called Graphika.
The social media campaign was implemented by an internet marketing firm from Russia called Internet Research Agency (IRA), which has deep ties to the Kremlin (the Russian equivalent to the U.S. White House). Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Trump/Russia investigation, has indicted the IRA and at least twelve of its employees.
What does the report say?
The official summary of the report from the Graphika website can be found at https://www.graphika.com/ssci-report/ but is provided below:
Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on the posts.
In short, we learned the Russian interference through social media was a well thought-out and executed strategy. It wasn’t merely random pro-Trump accounts, but a whole family of social media pages that worked in collaboration with one another to try to boost Donald Trump and other Republican candidates. Posts often highlighted issues such as immigration and gun control to motivate conservative voters, and many posts likened Donald Trump to Jesus and demonized Hillary Clinton.
What impact did it have on election results?
It’s really hard to know. We do know, for example, that African-American voter turnout in 2016 experienced a 7% decrease compared to 2012. Whether fault lies with the Russian propaganda or the popularity of Hillary Clinton compared to Barack Obama is impossible to know. As of yet, there is no hard evidence to show that the Russian interference made a measurable impact on election results.
China’s Muslim Internment Camps Grow
The New York Times reported this week that Chinese Muslim camps in the western Xinjiang region of China are becoming more like forced labor camps and less like the “vocational job training” camps the Chinese government claims to have implemented. Originally called “transformation through education centers,” the camps were created for indoctrination purposes and the renunciation of Islamic beliefs. Evidence is mounting, however, that more and more detainees are being sent to work in factories in or around the camps.
As the number of Muslim detainees and the cost of running the camps have increased, so has the number of factories in or around the camps. According to Mehmet Volkan Kasikci, a researcher from Turkey, camp inmates “provide free or low-cost labor for these factories.” Heavy restrictions suggest that many inmates do not have much choice but to accept their assignments and jobs. Scholars have estimated there to be up to one million camp detainees. The program includes Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gur), Kazakh and other Muslim ethnic minorities working sewing jobs, denouncing Islam, and taking oaths of loyalty to both factory bosses and the Communist Party of China, according to official program plans published online. Inmates are forced to recite hymns praising the Communist party and listen to lectures, all with the goal of driving out Islamic devotion.
China has continued to expand these programs within the past few months, despite widespread condemnation from the U.N., the U.S. and a host of other western governments. The Chinese government has defended the camps, claiming they are helping impoverished families gain job skills and enter the modern Chinese economy. Accounts from inmates working within the facilities are extremely rare as police block any near entrance to the camps and closely monitor foreign journalists, making interviews nearly impossible.
Relations between the Chinese government and Muslim citizens have been strained for decades. After anti-government protests and riots in 2009 and 2014 by Uighur Muslims, who killed hundreds of people, the government cracked down with renewed intensity on Uighur expression, mobility and speech. The Xinjiang region, where some roughly 8 million Uighurs live, is one of the most policed regions in the world. Chinese officials have implemented next-level security systems which includes facial recognition technology and monitoring of mobile phone content.
The News Memo is Edited by Madeline Krumel
Sources for this week’s Memo:
The New York Times
Officials say Trump has Ordered Full Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Syria
China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor
Kurdish Fighters Discuss Releasing ISIS Prisoners
Demanding Wall Funding, Trump Balks at Bill to Avert Shutdown
The Washington Post
Trump Administration to Pull U.S. Troops out of Syria
Senate passes bill to keep government open until February, undercutting Trump’s drive for border wall funding
The Wall Street Journal
In Shift, Trump Orders U.S. Troops Out of Syria
House Passes Criminal-Justice Reform Bill
Syria conflict: US officials withdraw troops after IS 'defeat'
Russia ‘meddled in all big social media’ around US election
China’s Hidden Camps
US Senate passes sweeping criminal justice reform bill