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Report Puts Russia, China and Iran in Line for Sanctions for Election Meddling

Voters who went to the polls last month in the United States’ midterm elections can rest assured that their votes were registered and counted properly.

However, a new report by the U.S. intelligence community concluded Americans were subjected to ongoing influence operations and disinformation campaigns by several countries, a finding that could trigger automatic sanctions.

“The activity we did see was consistent with what we shared in the weeks leading up to the election,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement late Friday.

“Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests,” he added.

Early signs were there

In the months leading up to the November vote, intelligence and security officials, and analysts had expressed concerns that countries like Russia and even non-state actors might seek to physically compromise U.S. voting systems.

But the fears, based on evidence Russian hackers had accessed some U.S. state and local systems, such as voter databases, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election did not play out according to the new assessment.

“At this time, the intelligence community does not have intelligence reporting that indicates any compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would have prevented voting, changed vote counts, or disrupted the ability to tally votes,” Coats said.

The report, required under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September, supports the initial assessment by Homeland Security officials the day of the election and in the weeks that followed.

“There were no indications at the time of any foreign compromises of election equipment that would disrupt the ability to cast or count a vote,” Christopher Krebs, director of the DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said a week after voters went to the polls.

Report could spur new sanctions

The new report now goes to the U.S. attorney general and to the Department of Homeland Security, which have 45 days to review the findings. Should they concur with the intelligence community’s assessment, Russia, China and Iran could be slapped with new sanctions.

Those measures could include blocking access to property and interests, restricting access to the U.S. financial system, prohibiting investment in companies found to be involved, and even prohibiting individuals from entering the United States.

Additionally, the president’s executive order authorizes the State Department and the Treasury Department to add additional sanctions, if deemed necessary.

But as in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when the CIA and FBI concluded with “high confidence” that Russia sought to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral process and help then-candidate Donald Trump win election, gauging the success of the 2018 meddling efforts is difficult.

“We did not make an assessment of the impact that these activities had on the outcome of the 2018 election,” Coats cautioned in his statement. “The U.S. intelligence community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.”

‘Witch hunt’

That impact will likely be debated in U.S. political circles, fueled in part by the president’s own attacks against the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s activities and into possible collusion with Trump’s own campaign staff.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Still, some lawmakers see the new intelligence community assessment as reason to act.

“The Russians did not go away after the 2016 election,” Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Warner, who previously criticized the president’s executive order for failing to lay out strong, clear consequences for election meddling, said it was no surprise China and Iran tried to manipulate American voters, and that the problem will only get worse.

“We’re going to see more and more adversaries trying to take advantage of the openness of our society to sow division and attempt to manipulate Americans,” he added. “Congress has to step up and enact some much-needed guardrails on social media, and companies need to work with us so that we can update our laws to better protect against attacks on our democracy.”

Executive order praised

Former officials have urged patience, praising the executive order as a good start and cautioning it will take time to see how well it works.

“I don’t know that it will be a complete solution,” said Sean Kanuck, a former intelligence officer for cyber issues, said when the order was first introduced. “I doubt it will completely change the incentive-cost-benefit analysis of the other side.”

Even after the executive order was unveiled, U.S. officials, as well as social media companies, continued to turn up evidence that Russia and others tried to meddle in the 2018 U.S. midterm election.

In October, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against 44-year-old Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, charging her with helping to finance disinformation campaigns on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, targeting both Republican and Democratic voters.

As with previous efforts, the accounts were designed to make it appear as though they belonged to American political activists and some managed to generate tens of thousands of followers.

Later that month, Facebook said it had removed 82 accounts, pages or groups from its site and from Instagram that originated in Iran and targeted liberal U.S. voters.

But U.S. officials and experts have also warned that the heavy focus on social media and influence campaigns, and the lack of evidence of tampering with U.S. voting systems and databases, should not be seen as a victory.

Saving ‘best tricks for 2020’

They say that just as the U.S. has hardened its systems against attacks and intrusions, cyber adversaries like Russia have been watching and learning, with their eyes perhaps on a much more significant target.

“The Russians were going to save their best tricks for 2020,” said William Carter, deputy director, Technology Policy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted in the days before the U.S. midterm elections in November.

“They’re going to let us chase our tails in 2018 and look for them where they’re not,” he added.

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Partial Government Shutdown Appears Likely as US House Adjourns

As U.S. Senate leaders continued negotiating funding for border security measures, a partial government shutdown seemed all but assured as the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned late Friday.

Lawmakers have until midnight in Washington to enact a spending bill or portions of the federal government will close.

But with the House voting to adjourn until noon Saturday, it appeared that operations for about a quarter of the government would cease early Saturday, meaning more than 800,000 federal employees’ jobs would be disrupted, and more than half of those employees would be required to work without pay.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that while talks were continuing among lawmakers and with the White House, no deal on a spending bill had yet been reached to avert the problem.

Earlier Friday, the Senate had voted to advance a House-passed bill that included $5 billion for President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. The procedural vote gave the Senate “flexibility” to continue negotiating, McConnell said.

Senate leaders gave no time for a vote on a spending bill, with leaders saying a vote would occur only when a deal had been reached.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told The Washington Post that Democrats were open to discussions but would not agree to any new funding for a border wall.

On Thursday, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a temporary spending bill that included billions for Trump’s proposed wall along the southern U.S. border.

After previously saying he would “proudly” accept responsibility for a partial U.S. government shutdown if Congress did not pass legislation that included funding for his proposed border wall, Trump early Friday tweeted, “The Democrats now own the shutdown!”

Friday afternoon he tweeted, “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last a very long time.”

Later Friday at the White House, Trump doubled down on his 11th-hour effort to blame the impending shutdown on Democratic lawmakers.

In an attempt to bolster the slim chances of the measure’s passage in the Senate, Trump summoned Senate Republicans to the White House Friday morning to discuss the bill and border security.

Trump repeatedly has demanded funds to build the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and he told House Republican leaders before Thursday’s vote he would not sign a bill approved by the Senate that did not include funding for the wall.

Schumer told colleagues Friday on the Senate floor that Trump was making unilateral decisions that were creating chaos throughout the world.

“All of this turmoil is causing chaos in the markets, chaos abroad, and it’s making the United States less prosperous and less secure,” Schumer said. “There are not the votes in the Senate for an expensive taxpayer-funded border wall. So President Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandon your shutdown strategy. You’re not getting your wall today, next week or on January 3rd, when Democrats take control of the House.”

McConnell argued for the wall’s funding, saying, “The need for greater security on our southern border is not some partisan invention. It’s an empirical fact and the need is only growing.”

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Russia Probe May be Headed for Climax in 2019

As 2018 draws to a close, the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller appears to be gaining momentum, built on an assortment of guilty pleas and convictions of former associates of President Donald Trump over the past year.

Some analysts predict the probe could headed for an epic climax in 2019 that could have a huge impact on the next presidential race in 2020.

In recent weeks, former key Trump associates have paraded in and out of court including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that include campaign finance violations related to hush money payments made to two women who allegedly had extramarital affairs with Donald Trump before he became president.

Trump has previously denied the affairs and has also denied Cohen’s allegation that Trump directed him to make the payments to the two women.

Flynn case

Flynn appeared in court this past week expecting to be sentenced for lying to federal investigators last year. Flynn admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with the then-Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.

Flynn and his attorneys were hoping for no jail time. But Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan unexpectedly lashed out at the retired Army general.

“Arguably you sold your country out,” the judge said. Flynn’s sentencing was put off to see if he can offer additional cooperation to the special counsel’s investigation.

So far, 33 individuals have faced charges in connection with the Russia probe, including 26 Russian nationals alleged to be behind election-related cyberattacks in 2016.

Even as the Russia probe appears to be gaining steam, the president remains adamant that no evidence has surfaced of collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia.

“On the Mueller situation, we are very happy with what we are reading because there was no collusion whatsoever,” Trump told reporters recently outside the White House. “There never has been. The last thing I want is help from Russia on a campaign.”

Defending Mueller

Opposition Democrats remain poised to defend the Mueller investigation as they prepare to assume the majority in the House of Representatives next month.

“They should not be able to end it. They should not be able to limit it,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. “They should not be able to interfere with Mueller going forward and doing what he thinks is the right thing.”

Though Republicans lost their House majority in the November midterm elections, they added two seats to their majority in the Senate and will hold a 53-to-47 seat edge in January.

Cohen’s role

Cohen’s case was handled by federal prosecutors in New York and the campaign finance violations have put the Trump White House on the defensive and made Cohen a key player in the investigation.

“What has happened since Michael Cohen has been cooperating with Robert Mueller is a lot more information related to the campaign,” said University of Connecticut legal expert Doug Spencer. “The first things that we learned about were campaign finance violations, potentially, with payments from President Trump’s campaign to women who were alleging affairs with him.”

The flurry of court activity in the weeks since the midterm election suggests the Mueller probe may be building toward a climax, says Third Way analyst Jim Kessler.

“So we are now getting the ‘big fish,’ people like (Michael) Flynn, people like Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who have either turned on the president or are on the ‘hot seat’ (in a vulnerable spot),” Kessler told VOA. “So the next 60 days should be very, very interesting, but it does not look like good news for the president.”

Wrap it up

Trump’s Republican supporters are urging the probe wind up quickly, including Senator Lindsey Graham.

“Eventually, Mr. Mueller is going to have to show the public that there is collusion or there is not, and we will see what Mr. Mueller finds,” said Graham, who supports letting Mueller finish the investigation.

The Russia probe may be headed for a legal conclusion in 2019, but it may be up to Congress to deal with the political aftermath, possibly including the option of impeachment.

“There are a lot of legal issues that I can speak to, but the real ultimate question here is a political one,” said legal analyst Ric Simmons of Ohio State University. “And depending on what is in this report, what is the political fallout both with the American people and with Democrats, but especially with Republicans in Congress.”

In an interview with Reuters this month, Trump said he was not concerned with the prospect of being impeached in connection with the Russia investigation. “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”

Recent polls show a majority of Americans favor Mueller being allowed to finish his investigation. But Trump’s repeated attacks on the probe as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” have slightly eroded the extent of public support over time.

Whatever comes out of the Russia probe could have a major political impact in 2019 as both President Trump and a large group of potential Democratic contenders look ahead to the 2020 election.

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Russia Probe May be Headed for a Climax in 2019

The Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller gained momentum during 2018 with guilty pleas and convictions targeting former associates of President Donald Trump. The probe could be headed for an epic climax in 2019, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.

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What Happens in a Partial Government Shutdown

As President Donald Trump and Congress bicker over Trump’s call for $5 billion to build a border wall with Mexico, government agencies are preparing for a partial government shutdown set to begin at midnight Friday.

The dispute could affect nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests. More than 800,000 federal employees would see their jobs disrupted, including more than half who would be forced to continue working without pay.

The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn’t be affected by any government shutdown because it’s an independent agency.

​Work goes on

Social Security checks will still go out. Troops will remain at their posts. Doctors and hospitals will get their Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. In fact, virtually every essential government agency, like the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, will remain open. Transportation Security Administration officers will continue to man airport checkpoints.

But hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be forced off the job, and some services will go dark. Even after funding is restored, the political repercussions could be enduring.

According to a report by Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee, more than 420,000 federal employees deemed essential would continue to work without pay during a partial shutdown, including about 41,000 law enforcement and corrections officers and nearly 150,000 Homeland Security employees. Those working without pay — three days before Christmas — would include about 53,000 TSA workers, 54,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and officers and 42,000 Coast Guard employees.

As many as 5,000 Forest Service firefighters and 3,600 National Weather Service employees also would continue working, with the expectation that they will be paid back in full once the government reopens.

Meanwhile, more than 380,000 employees will be furloughed, including nearly all of NASA and Housing and Urban Development and 41,000 Commerce Department employees. About 16,000 National Park Service employees, 80 percent of the agency’s workforce, would be furloughed, and many parks would close. Some parks already are closed for the winter.

Among those set to be furloughed: 52,000 staffers at the Internal Revenue Service, slowing analysis and collection of hundreds of thousands of tax returns and audits.

​Who works, and who doesn’t

The rules for who works and who doesn’t date back to the early 1980s and haven’t been significantly modified since. The Trump administration is relying mostly on guidance left over from former President Barack Obama.

Under a precedent-setting memorandum by Reagan budget chief David Stockman, federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property.”

The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans’ health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could continue to respond to disasters.

On the other hand, the Washington Monument and many other iconic park service attractions would close, as would museums along the National Mall. In the past, the vast majority of national parks were closed to visitors and campers, but during the last government shutdown in January the Interior Department tried to make parks as accessible as possible despite bare-bones staffing levels. It was not clear Monday if that effort will be repeated.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who greeted visitors at the World War II Memorial and other sites in downtown Washington during the last shutdown, said Saturday he is stepping down at the end of the year.

Federal workers still get paid — eventually

While they can be kept on the job, federal workers can’t get paid for days worked while there is a lapse in funding. In the past, however, they have been repaid retroactively even if they were ordered to stay home.

Rush hour in downtown Washington, meanwhile, becomes a breeze. Tens of thousands of federal workers are off the roads.

​Shutdowns happen

Way back in the day, shutdowns usually weren’t that big a deal. They happened every year when Jimmy Carter was president, averaging 11 days each. During Reagan’s two terms, there were six shutdowns, typically just one or two days apiece. Deals got cut. Everybody moved on.

Before a three-day lapse in January, caused by Democrats’ insistence that any budget measure come with protections for young immigrants known as “dreamers,” the most recent significant shutdown was a 16-day partial shuttering of the government in 2013. That one came as tea party conservatives tried to block implementation of Obama’s health care law. The government also shut for a few hours last February amid a partisan dispute over deficit spending.

Long-lasting political repercussions

In a 1995-96 political battle, Democratic President Bill Clinton bested Speaker Newt Gingrich and his band of budget-slashing conservatives, who were determined to use a shutdown to force Clinton to sign onto a balanced budget agreement. Republicans were saddled with the blame, but most Americans suffered relatively minor inconveniences like closed parks and delays in processing passport applications. The fight bolstered Clinton’s popularity and he sailed to re-election that November.

In 2013, the tea party Republicans forced the shutdown over the better judgment of GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Republicans tried to fund the government piecemeal, but a broader effort faltered. Republicans eventually backed down and supported a round of budget talks led by Paul Ryan, R-Wis., then the House Budget Committee chairman.

Now, as House speaker himself, Ryan is struggling to head off a shutdown just days before his long-announced retirement. Democrats led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi take over the House on Jan. 3.

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9 US States Seek to Stop Trump Administration’s Atlantic Oil Testing

Attorneys general from nine U.S. states sued the Trump administration on Thursday to stop future seismic tests for oil and gas deposits off the East Coast, joining a lawsuit from environmentalists concerned that the tests harm whales and dolphins. 

Seismic testing uses air gun blasts to map out what resources lie beneath the ocean. Conservationists say the testing, a precursor to oil drilling, can disorient marine animals that rely on finely tuned hearing to navigate and find food. The tests lead to beachings of an endangered species, the North Atlantic right whale, they say. 

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood said the tests would harm marine species, jeopardize coastal ecosystems and pose a “critical threat” to the natural resources, jobs and lives of New Yorkers. “The Trump administration has repeatedly put special interests before our environment and our communities,” Underwood said in a statement. 

The lawsuit, which names Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service as defendants, says the prospect of seeing marine mammals is an important draw for tourists to the states and helps coastal economies. 

The Department of Commerce declined to comment. 

Permits to harass

Last month, the fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Commerce Department, issued permits to WesternGeco LLC, a subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd., and CGG to harass, but not kill, marine mammals with air gun blasts in a region of the Atlantic from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Fla. 

Jennie Lyons, a spokeswoman at the fisheries office, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the department only authorized harassment, not outright killing, of the marine animals in issuing the permits. A marine biologist at the office told reporters last month that no seismic tests have been known to cause whale beachings. 

The permits, part of President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda to boost oil output for U.S. consumption and for exports, also went to ION GeoVentures, Spectrum Geo Inc. and TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. 

The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

The other attorneys general are from Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia. They joined a suit filed earlier this month by groups including the Coastal Conservation League, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oceana. 

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Trump Balks at Approving Funding to Avert Shutdown Without Border Wall Money

President Donald Trump is not going to sign legislation to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight Friday because it does not include money for the wall he wants built along the U.S.-Mexican border to thwart illegal immigration, top Republican congressional leaders said Thursday.

The president has “very serious concerns about border security,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said as he emerged Thursday afternoon from a White House meeting with Trump.

Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader, said Trump believes that to sign off on a Senate-approved temporary funding measure that keeps the full government operating through Feb. 8, but does not include border wall funding, would be tantamount to “just kicking the can down the road” in the debate over the barrier.

The lawmakers said they would try to accede to the president’s demands to add border wall funding in the House of Representatives version of the stopgap funding legislation. But Democrats are adamantly opposed to the $5-billion down payment on the $20 billion wall that Trump contends would thwart illegal immigration, and some Republicans are opposed as well.

The White House meeting occurred after Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders announced, “At this moment, the president does not want to go further without border security, which includes steel slats or a wall. The president is continuing to weigh his options.” 

The U.S. leader unexpectedly summoned Ryan, McCarthy and other key Republican lawmakers for talks about the wall and the temporary spending measure needed to keep about a quarter of government operations from shutting down when current funding expires Friday, just ahead of the Christmas holiday next week. The remainder of the government is funded through next September.

Trump has voiced increasing frustration that Congress has refused his quest for the $5 billion in wall money. Construction of the wall was a popular rallying cry at Trump campaign events during his successful 2016 run for the White House.

But until midday Thursday he had not disclosed his intentions on the temporary spending package to avert a closure that would furlough about 800,000 federal workers and curtail some government services. The Senate late Wednesday approved the stopgap funding and the House was set to vote on it Thursday.

But the outcome of a House vote grew more uncertain as staunch conservatives took to the airwaves to call on Trump to reject any spending plan that does not include funding for the wall.

The dispute is occurring in the last days of Republican control of both houses of Congress, which Republicans think is their last best chance of securing money for the wall that would extend over much of the 3,200-kilometer U.S.-Mexican border.

Democrats picked up 40 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives in the November elections and are set assume control in early January, making Trump’s challenge even greater at that point to secure wall funding. Republicans will maintain their edge in the Senate.

Before the meeting at the White House, Trump blamed opposition Democrats for congressional failure to approve the wall.

“The Democrats, who know Steel Slats [Wall] are necessary for Border Security, are putting politics over Country,” he said on Twitter. “What they are just beginning to realize is that I will not sign any of their legislation, including infrastructure, unless it has perfect Border Security. U.S.A. WINS!”

Trump also praised U.S. law enforcement efforts aimed at blocking illegal migration into the U.S.

“With so much talk about the Wall, people are losing sight of the great job being done on our Southern Border by Border Patrol, (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and our great Military. Remember the Caravans? Well, they didn’t get through and none are forming or on their way. Border is tight. Fake News silent!”

Trump, after vowing during the campaign two years ago to make Mexico pay for the wall, has unsuccessfully sought congressional approval for U.S. taxpayer funding for the wall. But with uniform Democratic opposition and scattered Republican opposition as well, Trump has not collected enough votes to win approval for the wall.

Trump last week said he would “proudly” accept responsibility for a shutdown in a fight over the border wall.

But then this week, the White House seemed to retreat on the demand for the $5 billion in funding, saying it would try to tap unused funds in various government agencies to build the wall, although Congress typically spells out exactly what funding is supposed to pay for.

Nonetheless, Trump tweeted, “One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!”

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Trump Pulling US Troops Out of Syria. Might Afghanistan Be Next?

Against the advice of many in his own administration, President Donald Trump is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Could a withdrawal from Afghanistan be far behind?

Trump has said his instinct is to quit Afghanistan as a lost cause, but more recently he’s suggested a willingness to stay in search of peace with the Taliban. However, the abruptness with which he turned the page on Syria raises questions about whether combat partners like Iraq and Afghanistan should feel confident that he will not pull the plug on them, too.

“If he’s willing to walk away from Syria, I think we should be concerned about whether Afghanistan is next,” Jennifer Cafarella, the director of intelligence planning at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an interview Wednesday.

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 17 years and still has about 15,000 troops there helping government troops combat the Taliban. The approximately 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are training and advising Iraqi security forces as they continue to fight Islamic State militants, a battle the U.S. entered in 2014 after IS swept into Iraq from Syria.

Before other officials confirmed the withdrawal decision, Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The aspect of this that he did not address is whether the extremists or others will fill the security vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal to regroup and pose a new threat.

The administration said it intends to continue combatting Islamic State extremists globally and could return to Syria if necessary. Still, critics launched a barrage of questions about the implications of Trump’s decision, including whether it opens the door for Turkish forces to attack the Syrian Kurds who had partnered with the U.S.

Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on the Atlantic.com website Wednesday that the Syria decision ought to unsettle every ally that relies on U.S. security assurances.

“The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan ought to be very, very worried,” she wrote. “For if Syria can be so lightly written off, the fight arbitrarily declared won, what is the argument for continuing to assist Iraq — where ISIS is even more defeated? And if Trump has so little interest in stabilizing security and assisting governance in Syria, how can Afghanistan have confidence that he won’t make the same decision about them, when the fight there is costlier and progress less evident?”

These and other questions about the Trump decision and its broader implications were on the minds of many in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, denounced what he called a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds.

“Now the President seems content to forsake their trust and abandon them to a potentially bloody conflict with Turkey,” Reed said. “This decision also significantly increases the security risks to our key regional partners in Israel, Iraq and Jordan.”

Trump has argued for a Syria withdrawal since he was a presidential candidate in 2016, and he has repeated his view several times since taking office.

On Thursday, Trump defended his decision, saying on Twitter: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer.”

He added: “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever?”

Still, the decision appeared to catch many in his administration by surprise; Pentagon officials offered no details on the timing or pace of the withdrawal, nor could they square it with numerous statements by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the importance of remaining in Syria to assure stability.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and typically a Trump supporter, said he was “blindsided” by the decision and called it “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a “grave error with broader implications” beyond the fight against IS. He called it “one more example of how the United States is not a reliable partner.”

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 militants were driven from their 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 them have been trained.

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North Korea’s Human Rights Emerge as Issue as Nuclear Talks Stall

North Korea’s human rights record is emerging as the latest issue separating Washington and Pyongyang, as denuclearization talks have stalled.

Often condemned as having one of the worst human rights records in the world — in a 2017 report, the U.S. State Department called the violations “egregious” — North Korea has rejected such criticisms, calling them ploys to overthrow its political system.

President Donald Trump said he raised North Korea’s human rights issue to Kim during the Singapore summit in June and that Kim responded “very well.” But Trump was criticized for failing to obtain a concrete human rights agreement in the joint statement signed by the two leaders at the summit.

US sanctions

The latest tension is triggered by sanctions imposed by the U.S. under the “maximum pressure” campaign designed to push Pyongyang toward denuclearization.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry said that “it will block the path to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula forever” if the U.S. escalates the human rights campaign against its country and increases sanctions.

The ministry said that it would be the “greatest miscalculation” to think such a campaign would cause it to denuclearize.

The statement issued Sunday came after the U.S. Treasury Department last week blacklisted three top North Korean officials suspected of human rights abuses and censorship, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The sanctions bar the three senior officials from engaging in transactions with anyone in the U.S. and freeze their assets within U.S. jurisdiction.

​UN resolution

On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and gross violation of human rights.”In response, North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Kim Song said the resolution is “a product of a political plot and hostile forces,” which Pyongyang “categorically rejects.”

A State Department official said the U.S. will continue to bring up North Korea’s human rights issues.

“The president raised North Korea’s human rights record in his summit meeting with Chairman Kim (Jong Un), and will continue to raise this issue going forward,” the official said in an email sent to VOA Korean Service on Monday.

The official added, “(North Korea) is among the most repressive authoritarian states in the world. The United States continues to work with the international community to raise awareness, highlight abuses and violations, promote access to independent information, and keep pressure on (North Korea) to respect human rights.”

​Denuclearization talks

North Korea’s warning comes after denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang stalled in early November when North Korea suddenly called off a planned meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It remains unclear if the human rights issue will derail denuclearization talks.

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, believes the U.S., by raising North Korea’s human rights record, could disrupt denuclearization talks because Pyongyang sees the issue as undercutting agreements it made with Washington at the Singapore summit in June.

“I think it would be because North Korea sees the agreement at the Singapore summit as one of the agreements — that the objectives, goals that they had — was to improve the U.S.-North Korean relationships, and North Korea sees these actions by the United States undermining that agreement,” Gause said.

John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, disagrees. He said the U.S. campaign against North Korea’s human rights violations will not derail denuclearization talks but might “undermine” Trump’s “negotiating position” on the process of denuclearization.

“I don’t think that human rights issues will ultimately derail the talks,” Feffer said. “Ultimately, North Korea is more interested in seeking whether Trump will agree to some kind of mutual process of give and take. That is the major hurdle at this point — the process. The talks will continue to limp along if the process remains murky.”

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, thinks the Trump administration should delink North Korea’s human rights issues from denuclearization talks in the beginning of the negotiation process, because speaking out against North Korea’s human rights violations might divert diplomatic efforts.

“I think it is appropriate for the administration to speak out on the issue,” Manning said. “But not to link it to denuclearization. If the diplomacy advances, and we begin discussions on U.S.-(North Korea) normalizations, human rights has to be discussed as part of that process.”

​Improving relations

Despite its sharp retort against U.S. actions toward its alleged human rights abuses, Pyongyang credited Trump’s willingness to improve relations with North Korea, suggesting it is open to talks with him.

A State Department official said the Singapore agreements Trump and Kim made on denuclearization will be fulfilled.

“At the summit in Singapore, President Trump and Chairman Kim made the first leader-level U.S.-(North Korea) commitment on denuclearization in history,” said the official in an email message sent to VOA Korean Service on Sunday.

“We remain confident that the commitments made by President Trump and Chairman Kim at their summit Singapore will be fulfilled.”

Baik Sung-won of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report.

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Honduran Migrant Gunned Down Shortly After US Deportation 

A Honduran migrant who had recently been deported from the United States was shot and killed a few blocks from his home, his family said Wednesday, in another sign of the dangers faced by migrants fleeing Central 

American gangs. 

Nelson Espinal, 28, was shot 15 times on Tuesday night shortly after leaving his home in the capital Tegucigalpa, said his sister, Patricia Espinal. The neighborhood is dominated by the Barrio 18 gang, one of the country’s most dangerous. 

Espinal was deported from the United States in late November and barred from returning for five years, according to documents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Nevertheless, Espinal, who worked in construction, planned to make another attempt to enter the country in January, his sister said.

“He said that if he did not leave, they were going to kill him,” Patricia Espinal said as her mother, Sara Matamoros, wept. “That’s why he left following the caravan.” 

​Crossed illegally

Espinal was detained after crossing the border illegally in Arizona, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He did not appear to be part of the migrant caravans trekking from Central America to the United States and did not seek asylum, the agency said.

On Wednesday, a U.S. federal judge struck down Trump administration policies aimed at restricting asylum claims by people citing gang or domestic violence in their home countries. 

In Mexico, authorities are investigating the deaths of two migrant teenagers from Honduras who were killed in the border city of Tijuana last weekend.

The youths, believed to be about 16 or 17, showed signs of having been stabbed and strangled. It could not be determined whether the victims had planned to apply for asylum. 

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters on Wednesday that his government would seek “fair treatment” for migrants.

More than 2,000 mainly Honduran immigrants who traveled with the caravan remain in a shelter in Tijuana, Lopez Obrador said. 

U.S. President Donald Trump has insisted that they will not be allowed into the United States, but a few asylum seekers have already crossed the border. 

The killings could fuel criticism of a policy proposal that Mexico and the United States discussed earlier this year to have Central American migrants wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. 

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