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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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Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

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Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

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Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)