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Trump pulling all US troops from Syria, declaring IS defeat

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, officials announced Wednesday as the president suddenly declared victory over the Islamic State, contradicting his own experts’ assessments and sparking surprise and outrage from his party’s lawmakers who called his action rash and dangerous.

The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS, and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war. Trump abruptly declared their mission accomplished in a tweet.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he said as Vice President Mike Pence met with top leaders at the Pentagon. U.S. officials said many details of the troop withdrawal had not yet been finalized, but they expect American forces to be out by mid-January.

Later Wednesday, Trump posted a video on Twitter in which he said it is “heartbreaking” to have to write letters and make calls to the loved ones of those killed in battle. “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” he said.

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump made the decision based on his belief that U.S. troops have no role in Syria beyond fighting Islamic State, whose fighters are now believed to hold about 1 percent of the territory they did at the peak of their power.

The president informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision in a telephone call, the official said. Turkey has recently warned that it would launch combat operations across its southern border into northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State.

Trump’s declaration of victory was far from unanimous, and officials said U.S. defense and military leaders were trying to dissuade him from ordering the withdrawal right up until the last minute. His decision immediately triggered demands from Congress—including leading Republicans—for more information and a formal briefing on the matter. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.

Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was “blindsided” by the report and called the decision “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”

The decision will fulfill Trump’s long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria’s long-running civil war. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.

The senior administration official said American forces would still work with allies to fight the Islamic State or other extremists in the country but gave no details on what that might entail.

Another official said it still is not clear to Defense Department leaders whether U.S. airstrikes against IS insurgents will continue in Syria after the American troops leave. U.S. military officials worry that American-backed Kurdish troops will be targeted by Turkey and the Syrian government, leaving no ally on the ground to help direct the strikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.

“This is, of course, an American decision,” he said. No matter what, he said, “we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena.”

Leading Republican senators reacted with displeasure to the news.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a “grave error” and that Kurdish fighters will stop fighting the Islamic State when they must confront Turkish troops crossing the border into Syria.

“This is a bad idea because it goes against the fight against ISIS and potentially helps ISIS,” he said, warning it could trigger a broader conflict in the region.

Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.

“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.”

And two weeks ago Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize the country. He said it will take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of that number have been trained.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in September that the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran was active there. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he said.

James Stavridis, a former Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander, tweeted Wednesday that “Pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake. Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smoldering underfoot. Big winner is Iran, then Russia, then Assad. Wrong move.”

The withdrawal decision, however, is likely to be viewed positively by Turkey, and comes following several conversations between Trump and Erdogan over the past several weeks. The two spoke at the G-20 summit in Argentina and in a phone call last Friday.

Erdogan said Monday he had gotten “positive answers” from Trump on the situation in northeast Syria where he has been threatening a new operation against the American-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Just hours before the withdrawal decision became public, the State Department announced late Tuesday that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile defense system to Turkey. The Turks had complained that the U.S. was slow walking requests for air defenses, and they had signed a deal with Russia to buy a sophisticated system in a deal that Washington and Ankara’s other NATO partners strongly opposed.

Completion of that deal with Russia for the S-400 system would have opened up Turkey to possible U.S. sanctions and driven a major wedge between the allies. It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the Patriot sale and the decision on U.S. troops.

Although the withdrawal decision doesn’t signal an end to the American-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, it will likely erode U.S. leadership of that 31-nation effort. The administration had been preparing to host a meeting of coalition foreign ministers early next year.

“The bottom line is that the American withdrawal from eastern Syria will create a power vacuum that will lead to a new phase of international conflict in Syria,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

She predicted that the Russians, the Iranians, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turks will compete for the terrain and resources previously under U.S. control “at the expense of” the Syrian Kurds who have partnered with U.S. forces against IS.


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A ruby in the rough: Parkview graduate reunited with class ring 26 years after losing it

JANESVILLE

Jeremi Alexander sold one of his stepfather’s cows for $450 to pay for his class ring in 1991.

The ring has a large ruby— Alexander’s birthstone— set in a gold band with the Parkview High School Viking flexing his bicep on top.

The last time Alexander saw the ring, he was 19 years old and sitting on a bench in Burbank Park on Janesville’s south side waiting to see his mother, Gloria Doherty. He dropped the ring after taking hallucinogenic drugs, and it remained lost for 26 years.

But thanks to a metal-detecting hobbyist looking in the right place, Alexander held the ring for the first time in two decades Wednesday afternoon—in nearly the exact spot he lost it in the park.

Finding treasure

Mike Morris of Afton has “hunted” for treasure with a metal detector around Janesville for years. He said he found Alexander’s ring in the park last year.

Morris doesn’t sell what he finds. Instead, he keeps the valuable items in a brown, fringed leather bag and plans to eventually bury them for his grandchildren to find, he said.

But Alexander’s ring was special. It was the first and only men’s class ring Morris found and had Alexander’s named engraved inside the band.

Morris was hesitant to look for Alexander. He didn’t know the circumstances under which the ring was lost and feared it could bring up bad memories for its owner, he said.

But with help from one of his metal-detecting friends, Morris found Alexander through Facebook and asked to meet him in the park Wednesday to return the ring.

“(It was) the most unbelievable thing,” Morris said.

He added he never would have found the ring if the city of Janesville didn’t offer permits to allow metal detectors in its parks. He hopes other communities might see the story of Alexander’s lost ring and loosen their rules regarding metal detectors.

A ‘Christmas miracle’

Alexander has been sober since March 6.

His struggle with alcohol began after his mother died by suicide in 2013. At his worst, Alexander said he was drinking entire bottles of vodka every day.

Since becoming sober, Alexander is convinced God has been sending him small miracles to help him in his journey.

His sister, Michelle Alexander, 44, recently gave birth to Abigail Gloria, named after their mother, Jeremi Alexander said. Becoming an uncle has changed his life.

He felt getting his ring back was a “Christmas miracle.” Being alive despite 30 years of poor decisions is the third miracle, he said.

Alexander found sobriety with help from Crossroads Counseling Center in Janesville and friends at Rock County Cycles, he said.

In the last nine months, he has been making amends for bad decisions, including intoxicated driving arrests, one of which he said he was in court for Wednesday afternoon after he retrieved his ring.

Alexander, who grew up working on his stepfather Kirby Doherty’s farm in Footville and formerly worked in construction, hopes to soon find a job and continue on a good path, he said.

He and Morris shared a couple of hugs Wednesday in the park. Across the street at Jackson Elementary School, a digital sign flashed a message appropriate for the occasion: “Be awesome.”

“It still fits,” Alexander said with a smile, fighting back tears that eventually came trickling down.


Obituaries and death notices for Dec. 20, 2018

Robert Eugene Fritz

Lorraine D. Hermann

Barbara Kutz

Vicki Lynn Romero

LaVern M. Schoonover

Gene L. Taylor


Analysis: Pullout from Syria weakens US in Mideast

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria robs the United States of key leverage in the Middle East, could clear the way for a return of Islamic extremist groups and boosts an expanding Russia.

Numerous foreign policy experts and former officials and diplomats branded the decision a mistake, in part because the defeat of the Islamic State militancy—Trump’s stated reason to have troops in Syria—is not yet complete or, to use the administration’s word, “enduring.”

“Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smoldering underfoot,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO commander.

For many, the withdrawal also represents the United States ceding its traditional dominance in the Middle East. Already, Iran, Russia and Turkey were months into negotiations on Syria’s political future—excluding the United States.

As if on cue, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to the Turkish capital of Ankara on Wednesday and lavished praise on the country, especially as a counterforce to the United States.

The withdrawal hands victories to two of the United States’ most fierce adversaries, Iran and Russia, who have been steadily carving out parts of the country for their own purposes and in cooperation with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

If Iran moves in to fill the vacuum that a U.S. pullback would leave, it will finally have its pathway to the Mediterranean Sea. And Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to add to the foothold he has been building in the Middle East.

Ally Turkey, long uncomfortable with U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, will be appeased. But those Kurds, who have been trained by and fought alongside U.S. special forces, are likely to feel abandoned by their American sponsors and left vulnerable to a full Turkish military assault east of the Euphrates River. They might feel forced either to flee or cut their own deal with Assad.

Washington will be left without leverage in Syria, which in turn will weaken its hand in other Middle East negotiations and trouble spots—chief among those, Iran, a top priority for the administration.

“America’s hand at a negotiating table and in any regional containment strategy will be much diminished,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, who specializes in Syria.

“Demanding Iranian forces leave Syria as part of a negotiated settlement was a boldly unrealistic demand in the first place, but to stick to that position now would look absurd,” Lister said.

Moscow, especially, stands to benefit. Countries in the Middle East, including Israel, are increasingly turning to Russia. Before, the United States was their partner in aid, weapons and trade. But the Trump administration is seen as inconsistent, experts say, with the Syria withdrawal the latest example.

“This fundamentally undercuts U.S. credibility. Again,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who heads the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security. “It shows how fickle we are.”

Goldenberg points to what he calls Washington’s “yo-yo” policy in the Middle East: withdrawing troops until a disaster happens and then sending them back in. President Barack Obama, for example, pulled most U.S. forces out of Iraq, which in turn eventually gave rise to Islamic State—which required renewed U.S. presence. There are pockets in Syria that Russia and Iran don’t have control over, Goldenberg noted, that will revert to fertile territory for such extremist groups as Islamic State.

“For the past 20 years, our policy in the Mideast has resembled a yo-yo diet,” Goldenberg said. “We declare we are leaving. We shed a lot. Too much. It’s unhealthy and we are vulnerable.”

To the list of victors, Stavridis, the former commander of NATO, adds Assad, whose ability to maneuver will be greater now; Washington can no longer play a decisive role in forcing a political agreement on Syria that might have ushered Assad from power.

“Pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake,” he said via Twitter. “Big winner is Iran, then Russia, then Assad. Wrong move.”

There was speculation that Trump’s decision was influenced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader has fumed over U.S. support for the region’s Kurdish fighters, whom he sees as an extension of a Kurdish separatist group that has fought a decadeslong guerrilla war against his nation. Erdogan recently announced the launch of a broad offensive against militias east of the Euphrates River, heretofore a no-go zone for the Turkish military, which has the potential of endangering American troops.

“Each day the U.S. remained in northern Syria, for Trump this was a risk (because) it could have led to a conflict with Turkey,” said Can Acun, a researcher at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

Erdogan and Trump spoke several times in recent days, including a phone call last week and a face to face at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, late last month. Persistent reports in the Turkish press had hinted at some sort of agreement between the two leaders.

“Trump is withdrawing from Syria under Turkish threat, ceding one-third of Syria and any influence over the political outcome,” Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter. “The days of American dominance in the Middle East are over. All hail Putin, Erdogan (and Khameini),” he wrote, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.

Trump officials say the U.S. remains engaged in the Middle East, primarily in its very close relationship with Israel. Trump has said he wanted to forge the “ultimate deal,” a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But two years into his administration and despite the special attention of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, no deal has materialized.

The Trump administration’s Mideast policy has also focused on sanctioning Iran for its production of ballistic missiles and support of regional militant groups while building stronger economic and diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.

As, arguably, the other big loser in the Trump withdrawal, Israel sought to downplay its significance Wednesday.

Trump and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo “made it clear they had other ways to exert influence in the region,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a steadfast ally of Trump. Netanyahu said he was notified ahead of time of the decision to leave Syria.

Retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, was less sanguine. Amidror described U.S. actions against Iran in Syria—Israel’s main concern—as negligible, but said that withdrawal from the tiny southern Syrian enclave of Tanf, a critical position in the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis, could be disastrous.

“The effect of the U.S. decision is primarily psychological and diplomatic: With this withdrawal, the United States abandons Syria and leaves Israel alone,” he said. “In those arenas, this is a very significant decision.”

From the battlefield, meanwhile, there was evidence that the fight against Islamic State is not yet over.

Despite a weekslong Kurdish-led campaign backed by hundreds of U.S. airstrikes, and although Islamic State has lost almost all territories under its control, the extremist group has still been able to mount counterattacks against the Kurds. On Tuesday, Amaq, an agency affiliated with Islamic State, reported that its militants had lobbed dozens of mortar rounds on Kurdish positions near Hajin, the last significant stronghold of the extremists.

With Trump issuing several threats in the last year to withdraw from Syria, Kurdish leaders have made cautious overtures to Damascus with the intent to negotiate a settlement that would give them a measure of control over northeastern Syria. So far, Assad and his government have rebuffed the Kurds.


Ryan uses farewell address to assail politics of 'outrage'

WASHINGTON

Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan decried the outrage and bitterness that he said now color American politics in a farewell speech that also acknowledged his inability to achieve two top goals: controlling surging federal debt and reining in Medicare and other mammoth benefit programs.

“Our complex problems are absolutely solvable,” Ryan said at the Library of Congress, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where he’s ending two decades in the House. “That is to say our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it.”

The Wisconsin Republican’s half-hour address, which touted achievements and admitted shortcomings, came as he ends his three-year run as speaker. Despite GOP control of the White House and Congress the past two years, it has been a remarkably tumultuous period dominated by the erratic decision-making and verbal outbursts of President Donald Trump and Republican divisions over top issues like health care and immigration.

Underscoring the chaos Ryan was leaving behind, Congress was spending its waning hours before adjournment trying to prevent a partial government shutdown as Trump clashed with Democrats over his desire for taxpayer money to build a border wall with Mexico.

Ryan’s departure comes six weeks after an Election Day that saw Democrats capture House control. Their triumph followed a campaign in which they pummeled Republicans for trying to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s popular health care law, a primary GOP priority.

Ryan never explicitly mentioned Trump in his remarks. But he bemoaned the divisiveness that has been a hallmark of Trump’s relentless, bitter denunciations of his political opponents, often on Twitter.

“All of this gets amplified by technology, with an incentive structure that preys on people’s fears, and algorithms that play on anger,” he said. “Outrage has become a brand.”

He said the combativeness “pulls on the threads of our common humanity in what could be our unraveling,” and he conceded that he didn’t know how to fix the problem.

Under Ryan, Congress approved the biggest tax cuts in decades, boosted defense spending and rolled back Obama regulations protecting clean air and water. But its attempt to scuttle Obama’s health care statute crashed, annual federal deficits are surging and big-ticket entitlement programs are still unchecked.

“We have taken on some of the biggest challenges of our time, and we’ve made a great and lasting difference in the trajectory of this country,” he said, lauding Republicans for trying to tackle intractable issues like health care and immigration.

Thanks partly to the 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax cut Republicans enacted last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a record $12.4 trillion in accumulated federal debt for the coming decade.

“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality, and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said.

While the House-passed health care bill would have culled savings from Medicaid and other programs, the effort died in the GOP-run Senate, killed by solid Democratic opposition and a handful of Republican opponents.

Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998 and became a leader of Republicans trying to shrink government. As House Budget Committee chairman, he wrote spending plans that envisioned squeezing savings from popular benefit programs like Medicare and eliminating deficits—cuts Congress never actually enacted.

He was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012 and became speaker in 2015 after conservative unrest prompted the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, John Boehner, R-Ohio. Ryan, 48, announced last April that he would not seek House re-election, saying he needed more family time.

On immigration, Ryan said no matter how the border wall battle is resolved, “The system will still be in need of serious reform. And no less than our full potential as a nation here is at stake.”

In a departure from Trump’s frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ryan said a fix should include not just border security but also help for immigrants in the U.S. illegally to stay “and be a part of our American fabric.” He said that should include “the undocumented population,” a group estimated at around 11 million people—far more than were in play this year in a failed attempt by Trump and Congress to address the issue.

Ryan was long a quiet force for broad immigration overhauls that conservatives opposed as going too far in offering citizenship to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. As speaker, he couldn’t unify Republicans behind one approach.

Resolving the problem would take “some of the venom out of our discourse,” he said.

On foreign policy, Ryan called for “committing to the pillars of international relations,” a contrast with Trump’s pillorying of NATO and withdrawal from some organizations. America must lead “not with bluster but with steady, principled action,” he said.

Ryan barely discussed last year’s GOP tax cut bill, which he considers perhaps his most significant accomplishment. He cited that bill’s tax breaks for investors in low-income communities and cautioned Republicans not to let efforts to ease poverty “drift from your consciousness.”

The president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has clashed with GOP congressional leaders it considers too cautious, faulted Ryan for not pushing hard enough to cut benefit programs.

“It wasn’t just the political reality. It was the failure of his leadership as the speaker to force that to be an issue,” said David McIntosh.

Defenders said Ryan led a House GOP that’s bitterly divided between hard-right conservatives and more pragmatic lawmakers.

“He unified a very fractious majority and kept it functioning,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.


Paul Ryan