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News Brief: Turkish Offensive, U.S. Troops Leaving Syria, Trump Adviser Fiona Hill


The United States is pulling its forces out of northern Syria. And the Syrian government is moving back in.


To be precise, they're being invited back in. Syrian Kurdish forces remain in northern Syria - U.S. allies - in a years-long fight against ISIS. Now the United States is abandoning its allies as their enemies from Turkey advance. So the Kurds have turned to another longtime enemy for help. They're making an alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following all of this from northeastern Syria. Hi, Daniel.


KING: OK. So this is a big development, or so it seems. The Kurds are now partnering with the Syrians. How significant is this?

ESTRIN: It's a huge development. The Kurds were being attacked by Turkey. Turkish-backed forces were moving into town. They were - there were reported executions of Kurdish fighters. There were airstrikes and, of course, the U.S. announcing pulling out all of its troops from northeastern Syria. And this forced the Kurds to scramble to protect themselves. And so they struck this deal with the Syrian regime to face off the Turks.

The Syrian regime will be recapturing the whole Syrian border with Turkey. And it seems like the regime's forces are moving quickly. They've closed in on a few towns in this border area. We've been asking Syrians here how they feel about all this. How do they feel about the Assad regime returning to their area after all these years? And actually, many Kurds here say they're relieved. They say they'd rather have the Syrian government here than Turkey, their sworn enemy. Take a listen to a 19-year-old barber named Suleiman (ph).

SULEIMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: We met him outside his barbershop. And he said, you know, I'm a part of an entire generation of young men who managed to dodge the Syrian military draft. And they're afraid that they could maybe get thrown in jail when the regime comes to town or even gets sent to the front lines. And so they're hoping that there's some kind of a deal that keeps them safe.

KING: You mentioned Syrians - you mentioned Syrian Kurds scrambling. You mentioned some of them saying they feel safer now. I mean, on the whole - I know you've been there. You've been talking to people. On the whole, what are they doing?

ESTRIN: Well, a lot is going to depend on this agreement between the Kurds and the regime whether people will feel comfortable staying here or whether they will flee. Some may try to flee across the border to the Kurdistan area of Iraq where their fellow Kurds are. And we met some people trying to do just that. We met a 70-year-old man Mohammad Shaho (ph) with his...

MOHAMMAD SHAHO: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: ...And pickup on the side of the road. They had mattresses piled in the back. They were sleeping in the desert.

KING: Seventy-year-old man sleeping in the desert. I mean, it does not sound great for civilians there at this moment. And I wonder - I know you've been there for a few days. And I imagine you have a couple of lasting impressions from this visit. How are people coping?

ESTRIN: Well, I think one lasting impression is what we stumbled upon yesterday. We found a church and a baptism was beginning...

KING: Wow.

ESTRIN: ...Take a listen to what we heard.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

ESTRIN: So that's the women cheering as the clergymen started to take the young boy and perform the baptism. And it was beautiful because we spoke to the priest who said that he delivered a Sunday sermon to his followers who said, what do we do? And he said, you know, hold on to your faith.

KING: Extraordinary that this is happening amid so much insecurity. NPR's Daniel Estrin in northern Syria. Thanks, Daniel, so much for being with us.

ESTRIN: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Noel.

KING: All right. The United States, of course, triggered all of this by ordering U.S. forces out of northern Syria. And today, we're learning more exactly about what the U.S.' plan is here.

INSKEEP: Yeah. For a while, U.S. officials minimized just how much territory U.S. forces would be ceding as Turkey invaded the region. And now we have some clarification. Military sources tell NPR that the 1,000 or so U.S. troops involved in anti-ISIS efforts are awaiting orders to withdraw from northern Syria. And Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS' "Face The Nation" that U.S. forces are, indeed, on their way out.


MARK ESPER: Well, it'll be a deliberate withdrawal. And we want to conduct it as safely and quickly as possible. So we want to make sure we deconflict a pullback of forces. We want to make sure we don't leave equipment behind. So I'm not prepared to put a timeline on it.

KING: Not prepared to put a timeline on it, he said there. NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's on the line now. Good morning, Tom.


KING: OK. So you've been talking to U.S. officials and military commanders in the region. What are they telling you about the withdrawal plan?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems, again, all of the hundreds of U.S. troops taking part in the anti-ISIS campaign will start leaving northeast Syria in the coming days. They've been there, of course, for several years, working with Kurdish forces to fight ISIS. Now, the ISIS caliphate, of course, is gone because of these efforts, as President Trump has said.

What he didn't say is there are still thousands of ISIS fighters remaining as a guerrilla force, seeping into towns and villages, mounting attacks. And the U.S. military really said up until yesterday when Secretary Esper made his comments that more work needed to be done. But all that's coming to an end very quickly. And U.S. special operators working with the Kurds are frankly disgusted and ashamed.

KING: Disgusted. We heard Daniel Estrin telling us about civilians scrambling for safety, praying that this all turns out well. For those U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, what circumstances are they in?

BOWMAN: Well, as a result of the Turkish invasion, U.S. forces are really stuck in the middle. They have little ability to move. Turkey fired artillery rounds near an American base just a couple of days ago. The Turks say they were targeting Kurds. The American soldiers I talked with say it was a warning shot to the Americans - basically, back off. And now the U.S., of course, is backing off and withdrawing completely from northeast Syria.

KING: President Trump still facing a lot of criticism over this move, people accusing him - critics accusing him of abandoning the U.S.' Kurdish allies. How is the White House responding at this point?

BOWMAN: Right. Well, the White House is denying all that. And officials privately say the Kurds knew that the U.S. wouldn't stay in Syria forever, that this was a transactional relationship. And many thought the Kurds would eventually work out some sort of a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. I was there a couple of times last year in Syria and they were talking about that at that time. And then, you know, in return, Kurds would get maybe some sort of autonomy in a Syrian state.

But again, for the American special operators working on the ground with the Kurds, this precipitous withdrawal, it all - they call it unethical and a betrayal. And it reflects an old saying, they say - the only friends the Kurds have are the mountains.

KING: What is President Trump saying to Turkey - either directly saying to Turkey or trying to telegraph to Turkey at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems President Trump wants Turkey to take up the fight against ISIS. But Turkey has only focused on fighting the Kurds. They were never focused on ISIS.

KING: OK. NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.


KING: For 2 1/2 years, a woman named Fiona Hill was President Trump's top aide on Russia and Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Today, House investigators ask what she knew about a shadow policy toward Ukraine. She was that adviser because she was on the National Security Council staff. She is expected to sit for a deposition in the president's impeachment probe. Hill resigned in July, the week before the president made his phone call to Ukraine's president asking for a political rival to be investigated. So what was her role? And what did she witness while in the White House?

KING: NPR national security correspondent David Welna has been asking around. Good morning, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So how well did President Trump understand who Fiona Hill was?

WELNA: Well, you know, there is sort of an interesting story here. At her first NSC meeting with Trump in March 2017, she had a violent headache. And she was kind of burrowing down and taking notes. And Trump apparently thought that she was just another staff note taker without quite appreciating just who she was.

And I think that says a lot about how Trump didn't quite understand who this person was who'd been recruited by two people who'd already been obliged to leave the NSC - its very short-lived director, retired General Michael Flynn and former Fox News commentator KT McFarland.

KING: OK. So tell us a bit about Fiona Hill. Who is she?

WELNA: Well, Fiona Hill was born the daughter of a coal miner in northern England. And she went on to become a top scholar of Russia at Harvard and later at the Brookings Institution. She also served as an intelligence official under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And notably, unlike Trump, Hill has been quite critical of Russian leader Vladimir Putin's reign.

The week after Trump took office, she told a gathering at Harvard that Russia's meddling in the election that brought him to power was, as she put it, an affront to our national security. And she expressed sympathy for the woman who she said was the object of that meddling, Hillary Clinton.


FIONA HILL: No matter what your position on Hillary Clinton, she's a former first lady, a former senator. And she was running for public office as a legitimate candidate in a legitimate election, no matter how dirty and contentious this election was.

KING: That is not a statement that would seem to endear her to President Trump. Why did she take this job?

WELNA: Well, some of her friends got the impression that this was done out of a sense of duty, that she's doing this for the country's sake. She was a professional. And she could provide good counsel to the president. One Russia expert who knows Hill well is Georgetown University's Angela Stent. And Stent says it was Hill's main aim while she was on the NSC to make sure, as she put it, that worse things didn't happen when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.

KING: What is Fiona Hill likely to be asked by congressional investigators today?

WELNA: Well, you know, Hill no longer works for this administration, so she's sort of a free agent. There do not appear to be any legal constraints on her appearing before this inquiry. And Angela Stent points out that if this - that this is Hill's chance to explain how there was a kind of shadow policymaking process at the White House when it came to Ukraine.

ANGELA STENT: She will certainly explain that the channel that was apparently opened by Ambassador Sondland and Rudy Giuliani, these were things that were going on outside of the purview of the National Security Council.

WELNA: And Hill's testimony today could also shed light on just what was going on with the $400 million that was put on hold in security assistance for Ukraine, about which the NSC seemed to be in the dark.

KING: NPR's David Welna. David, thanks so much for your reporting. We really appreciate it.

WELNA: You're welcome, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "THE MONSOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.