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“When I Took Over, It Was A Mess. They Were All Over The Place — All Over Syria and Iraq,” Claims Trump as IS Territory in Syria is Nearly Eliminated

Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, said they were searching for any IS militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghuz. The SDF has not yet announced a victory over IS. 

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Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio, March 20, 2019. VOA

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the last pocket of the Islamic State’s land in Syria would be liberated by U.S.-backed forces “by tonight.”

Trump previously announced the defeat of the group, but sleeper cells of fighters re-emerged. With no signs of fighting on Wednesday, however, the long-running battle to retake the militants’ last outpost in eastern Syria appeared to have reached its conclusion.

“The caliphate is gone as of tonight,” Trump said in a speech at a factory in Lima, Ohio, where military tanks are assembled.

End of caliphate

The complete fall of Baghuz would mark the end of IS’s self-declared caliphate, which at its height stretched across large parts of Syria and Iraq.

During his speech, Trump held up two maps of Syria — one covered in red representing territory held by the militant group when he was elected president in November 2016 and the other that had only a speck of red.

Donald Trump
Trump previously announced the defeat of the group, but sleeper cells of fighters re-emerged. With no signs of fighting on Wednesday, however, the long-running battle to retake the militants’ last outpost in eastern Syria appeared to have reached its conclusion. VOA

“When I took over, it was a mess. They were all over the place — all over Syria and Iraq,” said Trump, who has said the U.S. will keep 400 troops in Syria indefinitely.

For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign against the group. But even after Baghuz’s fall, IS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.

The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their propaganda machine working even as their hold on territory has been slipping away. The battle for Baghuz has dragged on for weeks and the encampment had proven to be a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.

FILE - A child stands on the back of a truck after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghuz, Syria, March 4, 2019.
A child stands on the back of a truck after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghuz, Syria, March 4, 2019. VOA

Tens of thousands of civilians

The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghuz, most of them families of IS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise.

Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, said they were searching for any IS militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghuz. The SDF has not yet announced a victory over IS.

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Associated Press journalists saw SDF soldiers loading women and children into trailer trucks on the hilltop over Baghuz, a sign that evacuations were still underway Wednesday. Black smoke was rising from the village.

On Tuesday, the SDF seized control of the encampment held by IS after hundreds of militants surrendered overnight, signaling the group’s collapse after months of stiff resistance. (VOA)

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Mueller Report Confirms Intelligence Findings About Russia’s Interference in 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections

"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial," Trump said at a joint news conference."President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be."

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Mueller's Report
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina Nov. 30, 2018. VOA

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference is providing current and former U.S. intelligence officials with a sense of vindication, affirming many of the conclusions they drew following the 2016 election.

At the same time, however, some suggest the report released on Thursday by the Justice Department should serve as a warning that Moscow’s efforts to degrade and undermine American democracy, already extraordinarily successful, continue unabated.

Specifically, these former intelligence and national security officials warn the evidence in the special counsel report shows Russia was able to find and exploit U.S. citizens who were willing to go along with Moscow’s means, described as “sweeping and systematic,” to achieve their desired results.

“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the Mueller report said, adding that President Donald Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

The January 2017 unclassified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, issued in the aftermath of the presidential election, concluded Russia aimed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”

“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence agencies wrote at the time, adding, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”

The assessment, though, has been attacked repeatedly by Trump.

FILE - In this May 8, 2017, file photo, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.
In this May 8, 2017, file photo, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. VOA

In November 2017, Trump slammed former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Former CIA Director John Brennan as “political hacks,” while deferring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”

Trump again deferred to Putin following their July 2018 summit in Helsinki.

“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said at a joint news conference.”President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Already, the U.S. has taken action, indicting members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin, as well as charges against 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking into Democratic Party computers.

Some former officials worry nonetheless that without a more forceful U.S. response, Russia or other adversaries will seek to get away with such behavior again.

“Those in America who cheered foreign intelligence attacks on our democratic processes, particularly for their own gain, should pay a price,” Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told VOA.

But if they do, it will not be in a U.S. court of law. The Mueller report concluded despite numerous contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, and evidence that campaign members “deleted relevant communications,” the evidence, “was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government.”

As frustrating as that may be for some former officials, experts like Frederic Lemieux, a professor of applied intelligence at Georgetown University, warn it was to be expected.

“The report is a traditional criminal investigation,” Lemieux said. “We’re certainly not seeing the counterintelligence investigation.”

“I am mostly certain that there are several intercepts that exist that have been made on Russian targets and those Russian targets were talking about Trump and his associates,” he said. “You don’t see anything what they were reporting back to Russia when we know those individuals are important enough to be under surveillance 24-7.”

Hints of that type of information, which could reveal sources or methods, or harm ongoing intelligence operations, may be contained in parts of the report that have been redacted. But Lemieux said it is just as likely they were not included at all, as many counterintelligence investigations rarely produce the type of “damning evidence” needed for a criminal conviction.

“It’s probably there [in the counterintelligence investigation] that maybe not collusion but maybe a sense of being compromised might emerge,” he said.

Other factors, as well, have complicated U.S. efforts to hold individuals accountable for working with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Among them, according to intelligence officials, has been the quality of the Kremlin’s spycraft, which left many Americans in the dark.

“Some IRA employees, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated electronically with individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the Mueller report said. “The investigation did not identify evidence that any US persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”

U.S. media outlets and numerous “high-profile” individuals were also taken in by the IRA.

t other times, Russia seemed to proactively play-off of the Trump campaign, such as in July 2017 when then-candidate Trump said he sarcastically challenged Russia to find tens of thousands of missing emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes remarks at a Pennsylvania Democrats Pittsburgh Organizing Event at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Nov. 4, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes remarks at a Pennsylvania Democrats Pittsburgh Organizing Event at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Nov. 4, 2016. VOA

“Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” the Mueller report said.

Despite such findings, some former officials say the Mueller report shows the U.S. intelligence community is not blameless.

“One of the lessons should be, we were pretty sloppy with our counterintelligence and our ability to counter stuff that was going on over the internet,” said Steve Bucci, an assistant to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington.

“We need to be more sophisticated about that aspect of it, at least more cognizant of it, and at least gin up our counterintelligence efforts a little bit around people that are involved in campaigns to make sure they don’t get caught up in this sort of thing and, regardless of their intent, that they don’t get tricked into doing stuff that’s counter to the general interests of the United States of America as far as us having fair and free elections,” he said.

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That opportunity likely will be coming.

Intelligence and Homeland Security officials have warned that Russia tried to meddle again in the recent 2018 midterm elections, with at least one Russian national connected to the IRA charged as a result.

And some analysts suggest Moscow is saving its best and newest tricks for the next U.S. presidential election in 2020.

Large swaths of redacted information in the Mueller report’s accounts of Russia’s IRAand “Project Lakhta,” would seem to back that up. (VOA)