Washington, Jan 9 (AP/UNB) — What to do with hundreds of foreign Islamic State fighters captured in Syria has become a critical and growing problem for the Trump administration as it prepares to pull troops out of the country.
A senior administration official said Tuesday that resolving the fate of these prisoners is a top priority as the government lays the groundwork with allies to comply with President Donald Trump's Dec. 19 order to withdraw the 2,000 American troops from Syria, where they have been working alongside the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces to fight the Islamic State group since 2015.
But there are no easy answers. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said releasing the fighters, among them Europeans and some U.S. citizens, would be "unacceptable" since they could simply rejoin the remnants of Islamic State fighters in Syria or elsewhere.
"This matters because SDF holds hundreds of IS fighters, including many European citizens, and they might go free if no solution is found," said Bobby Chesney, a national security law expert at the University of Texas.
European nations have been reluctant to take back citizens with ties to the Islamic State, not wanting the legal challenge of prosecuting them or the potential security risk if they are released.
And moving former fighters to the United States poses some of the same challenges the U.S. has faced with men detained at the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including whether it's feasible to prosecute militants captured on the battlefields of northern Syria, according to experts.
"It's one thing for the government to be very confident that an individual joined or tried to join ISIS. And sometimes it's still another thing for the government to be able to mount confidently a criminal prosecution against that individual," said Joshua Geltzer, a senior counterterrorism official under President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, the prisoner problem is only growing worse.
On Sunday, the Syrian Defense Forces announced the capture of five fighters, including two U.S. citizens, one of whom has been identified as a former school teacher from Houston.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just began a tour of eight Middle Eastern nations to discuss the withdrawal of the American troops. National security adviser John Bolton returned Tuesday from a meeting in Turkey, where he was seeking a guarantee of safety for the Kurdish fighters who have fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State.
There are fears that the U.S. withdrawal will leave a door open for Turkey to assault the U.S.-allied SDF fighters. Turkey views them as part of a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders. SDF commanders have warned that they will be unable to hold the 700 prisoners if Turkish forces invade Syria following a U.S. withdrawal.
Administration officials so far do not have a plan for what to do with the prisoners, according to a separate U.S. official, who said that few countries have been willing to accept any of their captured citizens. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to disclose the information publicly.
In a recent case of an American suspected of IS membership, U.S. officials wrestled for more than a year, never charged him and then ultimately released him in Bahrain.
The problem has been further complicated by conflicting reports of Trump's timeline for recalling the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. When he made his surprise announcement of the withdrawal three weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to complete it quickly. His abrupt decision led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat IS.
More recently, Trump and other administration officials have insisted they favor an orderly pullout. The senior administration official said the U.S. will defeat remaining IS fighters on the way out to prevent a resurgence and that the U.S. will oppose any mistreatment of opposition forces, such as the SDF, that fought with the United States against IS.
"These questions are hard enough, if you know the timeline on which you're making them — if you know what the U.S. involvement will or won't be over that timeline," Geltzer said.
One of the foreign fighters recently captured is Warren Christopher Clark, a former substitute schoolteacher from Houston, Texas, who was first identified by George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Researchers spent months investigating to confirm his identity through multiple sources. The program has identified more than 73 Americans, by their legal names, who are known to have joined jihadist groups.
"Clark is one of several dozen Americans to join the Islamic State out of the around 295 whom intelligence officials claim have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group," according to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism.
Clark was captured along with four other foreign jihadists — two from Pakistan, one from Ireland and a fourth man, Zaid Abed al-Hamid, who also is believed to be from the United States, although that has not been confirmed.
In a letter to IS that was obtained by the researchers, Clark submitted a resume noting that he had a bachelor's degree from the University of Houston, had worked as a substitute teacher at the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas, and had done teaching stints in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
"Dear Director, I am looking to get a position teaching English to students in the Islamic State," he wrote to the group in an accompanying cover letter. "Teaching has given me the opportunity to work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and learning capabilities."
Washington, Jan 9 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump made a somber televised plea for border wall funding Tuesday night, seeking an edge in his shutdown battle with congressional Democrats as he declared there is "a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul."
Addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time, Trump argued for funding on security and humanitarian grounds as he sought to put pressure on newly empowered Democrats amid an extended partial government shutdown.
Trump called on Democrats to return to the White House to meet with him, saying it was "immoral" for "politicians to do nothing." Previous meetings have led to no agreement.
Responding in their own televised remarks, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of misrepresenting the situation on the border as they urged him to reopen closed government departments and turn loose paychecks for hundreds of thousands of workers.
Schumer said Trump "just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration."
Trump, who has long railed against illegal immigration at the border, has recently seized on humanitarian concerns to argue there is a broader crisis that can only be solved with a wall. But critics say the security risks are overblown and the administration is at least partly to blame for the humanitarian situation.
Trump used emotional language, referring to Americans who were killed by people in the country illegally, saying: "I've met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I've held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible."
The president often highlights such incidents, though studies over several years have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.
Trump has been discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without getting congressional approval for the $5.7 billion he's requested. But he did not mention that Tuesday night.
With his use of a formal White House speech instead of his favored Twitter blasts, Trump embraced the ceremonial trappings of his office as he tries to exit a political quagmire of his own making. For weeks he has dug in on a signature campaign promise to his base voters, the pledge to build an impregnable "beautiful" wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The partial government shutdown reached its 18th day, making the closure the second-longest in history. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are going without pay, and government disruptions are hitting home with everyday Americans.
Amman, Jan 8 (AP/UNB) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun a Mideast visit to talk to regional leaders about ramping up pressure on Iran.
The trip comes amid confusion over conflicting Trump administration statements about a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
Pompeo's first stop on Tuesday is pro-Western Jordan, followed by visits to Egypt and Gulf nations.
He told reporters he plans to talk to allies about "modalities by which we may continue to apply pressure" on Iran, branded by Washington a sponsor of terrorism.
Pompeo will likely face questions about last month's surprise announcement that U.S. troops would soon leave northeastern Syria, where they help battle remnants of the Islamic State group.
He didn't give a timeline. Asked about confusion among allies, he said: "I've actually spoken to them all.
Turkey, Jan 8 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump's shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.
One day after White House national security adviser John Bolton announced the U.S. pullout would not be as immediate as Trump had initially declared, U.S. allies on Monday sought clarification from American diplomats. The Kurds, who have fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State group and fear an assault by Turkey if the U.S. withdraws, were still asking publicly for an explanation from Washington.
Bolton said the U.S. would first seek assurances from Turkey that it would not harm the Kurds — for the first time adding a "condition" to the withdrawal. He arrived Monday in Turkey to seek those guarantees from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but there was little reason for optimism. In a New York Times op-ed published ahead of the Tuesday meeting, Erdogan referred to the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group, Turkey's longtime position, and rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.
The piece set up a contentious day of diplomacy for Bolton and underscored the destabilizing impact of Trump's shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign policy. Trump's spur-of-the-moment withdrawal came with no details, leaving allies scrambling for answers and aides crafting a strategy that can satisfy all the players, including Trump.
Trump discussed Syria during a phone call on Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had panned Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops and warned it could have dangerous consequences. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said they discussed the commitment of their two countries "to the destruction of ISIS as well as plans for a strong, deliberate, and coordinated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria."
Bolton said Sunday, "We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States." Trump has made clear that he would not allow Turkey to kill Kurds, Bolton added. "That's what the president said, the ones that fought with us."
Erdogan proposed in his op-ed to stand up a "stabilization force featuring fighters from all parts of Syrian society" to safeguard northeast Syria once American troops leave, though he said an "intensive vetting process" will exclude fighters with "links to terrorist organizations," which in his government's view includes the YPG.
Bolton did not respond to the op-ed ahead of Tuesday's meetings, but such an offer would appear unlikely to be acceptable to the U.S. Bolton had said the protection of U.S. allies in Syria, including the YPG, was among "the objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal" of U.S. forces.
Speaking to The Associated Press from northern Syria on Monday, a Syrian Kurdish official said the Kurds have not been informed of any change in the U.S. position and were in the dark about Bolton's latest comments.
"We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements," Badran Ciya Kurd said.
Kurdish officials have held conversations with Moscow and Syrian President Bashar Assad's government about protection, but Bolton called on them to "stand fast now."
Bolton's pronouncements were the first public confirmation from the administration that the pace of the drawdown had changed since Trump's announcement in mid-December that U.S. troops are "coming back now." Trump faced widespread criticism from allies about his decision, including that he was abandoning the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.
At the time, Trump had also said that Turkey would step up the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, but Bolton said Sunday U.S. troops will eliminate what remains of IS as another "condition" to northeastern Syria.
Trump on Monday struck back to the perception that his intentions in Syria had changed. "No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!....." he said in a tweet.
While Sanders said last month the administration had "started returning United States troops home," the Pentagon said Monday no U.S. troops have withdrawn from Syria yet, but added that there is an "approved framework" for withdrawal.
Bolton maintained there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown, but insisted it was not an indefinite commitment to the region. Still, some 200 U.S. troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.
In meetings with Turkish officials Tuesday, Bolton said he will seek "to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain."
He will be joined by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will remain in Turkey for additional meetings with Turkish military officials, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Jeffrey will travel from Turkey into Syria to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Washington on Monday for an eight-nation trip of the Middle East. Both he and Bolton are seeking input and support for the specifics of the withdrawal plan, according to one official, who said U.S. partners were eager for details.
San Francisco, Jan 8 (AP/UNB) — Utility crews restored power to thousands of people Monday and mopped up the damage from a winter storm that swept through Northern California, as they braced for more stormy weather later this week.
A new wet system is expected in the region on Tuesday night that won't be as intense but two more powerful storms are expected over the weekend, National Weather Service forecaster Emily Heller said.
Strong winds and downed trees knocked out electricity for nearly 90,000 customers across the Sacramento region Sunday night. Toppled utility poles and trees prompted the temporary closure of a major highway.
By Monday afternoon, about 3,000 customers were still without power, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District said.
Spokeswoman Lindsay Van Laningham said the utility was getting ready for more potential work later this week.
"We'll have all hands on deck for crews to repair damages. We are ready for it, and we're sort of mopping up from today's storm and damage," she said.
In Oregon and Washington, tens of thousands of people remained without power after windstorms struck parts the northwest over the weekend.
Interstate 80 from Placer County in California to the state line with Nevada reopened Monday but it remained closed in Nevada's Washoe County, the California Transportation Department said.
Officials shut down the highway Sunday after the snowstorm reached the Lake Tahoe area as weekend visitors were leaving.
The National Weather Service on Monday issued a winter storm warning for areas in the Sierra Nevada above 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), saying snowy and gusty conditions will limit visibility.
Over three days 4.5 feet (1.37 meters) of snow accumulated at the summit of Mammoth Mountain, 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Tahoe, the resort said Monday. More than a foot (30 centimeters) fell in the upper elevations around Tahoe, including 19 inches (48 centimeters) at Squaw Valley.
Up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain fell in some Northern California coastal and valley areas, while mountain communities got heavy snow.
In Southern California, light to moderate rain fell early Monday as a second system followed heavy Saturday night downpours that unleashed massive mud flows from the fire-scarred Santa Monica Mountains onto Pacific Coast Highway.
Cleanup work kept about 13 miles (21 kilometers) of the scenic highway closed from western Malibu to Ventura County. Caltrans said the closure might last into Tuesday.
While the latest rain was modest, powerful winds swept the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles early Monday because of a so-called mountain wave — southwesterly winds rising up and over the San Gabriel Mountains and then plunging down into the high desert. The National Weather Service said a 78 mph (125 kph) gust was recorded at Lake Palmdale.
In the northwest, about 30,000 Puget Sound Energy customers in Oregon and Washington remained without power Monday afternoon. Crews had restored power to 288,000 customers since the height of the storm. Seattle City Light had approximately 1,000 customers without power as of Monday morning, the utility said on Twitter.
In Oregon the lights were back on for most people.
The storm caused Alaska Airlines to ground all its flights between 4:20 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. Sunday after a power outage in the Seattle area, where its operations are based. Twenty seven flights were delayed and five were canceled.
The National Weather Service reported winds included gusts of more than 60 mph (95 kph) at the storm's peak Saturday night and early Sunday morning.