News Brief: Northern Syria, Impeachment Inquiry, Canadian Election
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. may have been the one to broker this temporary cease-fire between Turkey and Kurds in Syria, but that pause comes to an end today. And now Turkey is consulting Russia about its next steps.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Right. You'll remember the fighting started after President Trump moved U.S. troops out of the border region. And there have been these concerns about who's going to fill the power vacuum - Turkey, which is now bombing the Syrian Kurds who fought with the United States against ISIS, or the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad or, by extension, Russia or even ISIS, which could regroup. So President Trump is taking a lot of heat on this decision. And now acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper says some U.S. troops will stay in Syria.
MARTIN: Joining us now, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So President Trump had wanted all U.S. troops out of Syria. Now that's not happening apparently. Is the Pentagon going rogue here? Or has this plan to keep some U.S. troops behind already - is this already something Trump has approved?
BOWMAN: Well, it's really uncertain yet. And the U.S. troops are leaving, some heading into Iraq. And Trump said at a Cabinet meeting that keeping troops in Syria was not necessary, quote, "other than that we secure the oil." And Defense Secretary Mark Esper picked up on that. Let's listen.
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MARK ESPER: This withdrawal will take weeks, not days. Until that time, our forces will remain in the towns that are located near the oil fields. The purpose of those forces - a purpose of those forces working with the SDF is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others.
BOWMAN: Now, those oil fields are not up in the area where the Turkish militia groups are creating a safe zone. But they're down in a southern area where there are oil fields that are currently being secured by Kurdish forces with help from the United States. And there are estimates that maybe a couple of hundred American troops will remain out of the total number of a thousand American troops that were in Syria.
MARTIN: So the focus is supposed to be on these oil fields that aren't even near the border. But are the fields actually under threat from ISIS?
BOWMAN: You know, not at this point. It was Russian mercenaries, not ISIS, that tried to grab these oil fields early last year. Of course, Russia is allied with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Now, Rachel, I was in Syria at the time talking with the Kurdish commander about this. He said some 500 Russian mercenaries were firing artillery toward an American-Kurdish base. And they were trying to seize oil fields with plans to head in that direction. But this Kurdish commander, General Hassan (ph), said a Russian military officer denied any Russian involvement. Here he is talking through an interpreter.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We are sure they know that - I mean the Russian - but they are deny. They say, we don't have any force up there. We are not involving in that fighting.
BOWMAN: But those Russian mercenaries were pummeled by American airstrikes and withdrew. Some 250 were killed. And the Kurdish commander then said the Russian officer called him and asked if they could come and pick up their dead.
MARTIN: OK. Just worth repeating again - today, Turkey's Erdogan is in Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, underscoring the precariousness of this entire situation. Tom, just where does this whole thing leave the Kurds in this moment? Because the cease-fire is now over today, right?
BOWMAN: That's right. It's over today. And it leaves the Kurds vulnerable to these Turkish militia forces. And frankly, some of the Kurdish civilians are pretty bitter about all this. And they've been throwing rotten vegetables at the U.S. military vehicles as they're leaving. And to complicate this even more, Rachel, Iraq is not sure they want any more U.S. forces heading into their country. So it's very, very complicated and not going to end anytime soon.
MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for us. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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MARTIN: OK. William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, left a sort of paper trail. Did he do it on purpose?
KING: House investigators might ask him that today. He's going to be testifying behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry. House Democrats are investigating whether President Trump held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless the government there investigated Joe Biden and the DNC. Now, Taylor's text messages, some of which are now public, suggests that he was troubled by the appearance of a quid pro quo.
MARTIN: To walk us through what to expect from today's testimony, we are joined by NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: First off, just tell us a little more about Ambassador Taylor. Who is he?
KELEMEN: So he's a Vietnam War veteran. And he spent much of his career in the State Department. Taylor was actually the ambassador to Ukraine over a decade ago. Before that, he worked on aid programs in the region. So he really knows all the players there. He was brought back to run the embassy, rather reluctantly, after Marie Yovanovitch was withdrawn. She was the ambassador who was facing a smear campaign led by Trump's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
MARTIN: So, I mean, he knows Ukraine, right? As you just laid out, he's been working there for a long time. How does he think about the country? What are his views concerning Ukraine?
KELEMEN: Well, we actually know quite a bit about his views because he co-authored a bunch of op-eds in recent years about helping Ukraine counter Russian aggression. Taylor supported the idea of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, which the Trump administration did. Though, it held up some of that aid this summer for a bit. He even weighed in on the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a podcast for the U.S. Institute of Peace. Just take a listen.
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WILLIAM TAYLOR: The new president - the president-elect is getting a lot of support from the international community. And, as people told me over and over, the Americans are key.
KELEMEN: So that was right after Zelenskiy, who was a comedian before he entered politics, won the election. Taylor had been an election monitor and seemed enthusiastic about Zelenskiy's anti-corruption campaign. But back in Washington, President Trump seems to have had a pretty dim view of Ukraine, reinforced, we're learning now, by a visit by Hungary's leader. Remember, Trump was trying to get out from under the cloud of the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia's intervention...
KELEMEN: ...In the 2016 election. And he and his private lawyer, Giuliani, have been pointing to Ukraine.
MARTIN: Trying to suggest that it was Ukraine that interfered and to diminish Russia's role in the 2016 elections.
MARTIN: So then there's William Taylor and text messages, right? Remind us how he fits into all this.
KELEMEN: Yeah. So early in the impeachment inquiry, the House committees released a series of messages, some of which were written by Taylor. In one, he says that President Zelenskiy is sensitive about being seen as an instrument in U.S. politics. In another, he wrote, rather bluntly, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign. Remember, he was a supporter of this aid, which was, as we mentioned, delayed.
MARTIN: Right. So what are House investigators - what are they going to try to find out from him today?
KELEMEN: Well, you know, a lot of the - his former colleagues see him as kind of the hero of this story so far because it seemed he was, through these text messages, creating a record of what's going on. Lawmakers and their staffers are going to want to get a full picture of his understanding of why U.S. aid was being held up. And he would also have insight, by the way, into what Ukrainian officials were telling him about that and what - and whether they really felt under pressure.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.
KELEMEN: Sure thing.
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MARTIN: All right. He apologized for a blackface scandal, was found guilty of attempting to obstruct justice, upset his liberal base by expanding an oil pipeline in western Canada. We're talking about Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who has won the day, won a second term as Canada's prime minister. Here's what he promises in his next term.
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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We will make life more affordable. We will continue to fight climate change. We will get guns off our streets. And we will keep investing in Canadians.
KING: Trudeau fought a tight race against Conservatives. And that message of hope and change that won him his seat in 2015 didn't seem to have the same resonance (ph) this time around. His Liberal Party couldn't form a majority government in Canada's House of Commons.
MARTIN: Joining us now, reporter David McGuffin from Ottawa covering all of this. Hi, David.
DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
MARTIN: So help us understand the results. Trudeau did not fare as well as he had hoped. What happened?
MCGUFFIN: Yeah. Well, he went into this campaign thinking he would actually sail back to victory fairly easily, and that clearly didn't happen. He lost about 21 seats. And he's lost his parliamentary majority. All that's likely tied to the political and personal scandals he's been involved in in the last year...
MCGUFFIN: ...Which were fairly serious. He's now effectively been put in check by the opposition parties. And I think that's basically what voters were saying. Like, you need to shape up. We're sort of putting you on notice. And that was also the message really, too, from the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, as he gave his concession speech in the early hours of this morning.
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ANDREW SCHEER: Conservatives have put Justin Trudeau on notice. And, Mr. Trudeau, when your government falls, Conservatives will be ready. And we will win.
MARTIN: I mean, considering how tight it was and all these scandals, how did Trudeau pull this out?
MCGUFFIN: Yeah. And there was an assumption here, really, up until late last week that the Conservatives would win at least a minority government. But part of the problem was the Conservatives' own leader, Andrew Scheer, just didn't warm to voters. There was concerns about his social conservatism. He's against abortion rights, which is not a popular stance amongst most Canadians. He also heavily downplayed the need to fight climate change. His was the only party that did that. His party's power base is in oil-rich Alberta. But that also wasn't a popular stance here. Climate was at the center of most of the party's platform.
So - and also, Trudeau wound up being helped by strategic voting on the left. Voters of the New Democratic Party, which had been surging in the polls - it's a left-leaning party under their popular leader Jagmeet Singh - they appear to have decided to vote strategically for the Liberals as a way to - preventing a Conservative government coming in.
MARTIN: So it was less about Trudeau himself as an individual and more about just securing the party's future. What happens, though, I mean, as Trudeau now has to make some compromises?
MCGUFFIN: Yeah. He's got to work - basically he's got to work I think with the New Democratic Party. They - together they have enough votes to get bills through Parliament. Minority governments aren't that unusual in Canada...
MCGUFFIN: ...But we're expecting an election probably in the next 18 months to two years.
MARTIN: All right. David McGuffin for us, covering the results of Canada's national elections. David, we appreciate it.
MCGUFFIN: Thank you.
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