Skywalker Saga of ‘Star Wars’ a Lifelong Journey for Fans

Moviegoers in the U.S. and much of the world can now see “Star Wars, Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker.” The final installment of the “Skywalker Saga” ends a story that spawned the most successful movie franchise of all time, with more than $9 billion in global box office receipts – and counting. The film’s release is bittersweet for those who look back and see “Star Wars” woven throughout their lives. Among them is VOA’s Midwest Correspondent, Kane Farabaugh

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Croats Pick President in Tight Test for Ruling Conservatives

Voters in Croatia on Sunday cast ballots in a tight presidential election, with the ruling conservatives seeking to keep their grip on power days before the country take over the European Union’s presidency for the first time.

Some 3.8 million voters in the European Union’s newest member state can pick among 11 candidates, but only three are considered to be the front runners while the others are lagging far behind.

Conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.

Though the post is largely ceremonial in Croatia — the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad — keeping the presidency is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is set to assume the EU rotating chairmanship on Jan. 1 that that will include overseeing Brexit and the start of post-Brexit talks.

Analysts have predicted that a runoff vote will be held in two weeks as none of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority and they are all polling close to one another.

Grabar Kitarovic had started off stronger than other candidates but her position has weakened after the she made a series of gaffes during the campaign.

She is still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro is trailing third, chipping away right-wing votes from Grabar Kitarovic.

Analysts believe that Grabar Kitarovic and Milanovic — who represent two main political options — will face each other in the Jan. 5 runoff, but they haven’t completely ruled out an upset by Skoro.

Though it has recovered since the 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, Croatia still has one of the poorest economies in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.

Critics have blasted the government for setting the election three days before Christmas when many people travel abroad.

The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast that includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.

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Queen Elizabeth Mixes Puddings, and Sends Message of Continuity

At the end of a difficult year, Queen Elizabeth has posed for photographs with her son Prince Charles, grandson Prince William and great-grandson Prince George in an apparent message about the continuity of the British royal family.

Buckingham Palace released photographs on Saturday of the Queen and the three immediate members of the line of succession as they prepared traditional Christmas puddings.

Prince George, 6, is the focus of attention for his older relatives as he stirs pudding mixture in a bowl.

The palace said the four generations of royals represented a cross-section of people helped by a charity for serving and former members of the armed forces – the Royal British Legion – which the queen has supported since 1952.

The family scene struck a happy note for Queen Elizabeth, 93, after a difficult year.

Over the past 12 months, her husband Prince Philip got a police warning for his involvement in a car crash, grandsons Princes William and Harry publicly fell out and her second son Prince Andrew became more entangled in the furor over his links to disgraced U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein.

On Friday, 98-year-old Philip was taken to hospital for treatment of an existing condition, Buckingham Palace said.

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DC Volunteer Group Cooks Up Holiday Meals for the Needy

Since 1954, Mother Dear’s Community Center has been providing services for the needy in the Washington metropolitan area. During the holiday season, the center’s volunteers serve up meals-on-wheels, feeding homebound seniors and the homeless.

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Syria Says Possible Drone Attacks Hit 3 Oil, Gas Facilities

Near-simultaneous attacks believed to have been carried out by drones hit three government-run oil and gas installations in central Syria, state TV and the Oil Ministry said Saturday.

No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted the Homs oil refinery — one of only two in the country — as well as two natural gas facilities in different parts of Homs province.

Syria has suffered fuel shortages since earlier this year amid Western sanctions blocking imports, and because most of the country’s oil fields are controlled by Kurdish-led fighters in the country’s east.

State TV said it believes the attacks were carried out by drones and happened at the same time. It said a fire at the Homs oil refinery was soon put under control. The report said the Rayan gas facility and a third installation, also in Homs province, were hit.

Syria’s Oil Ministry said the attacks damaged some “production units” in the facilities. It said fires were being fought, and that repairs were already underway in some places.

The city of Homs and its suburbs have been fully under Syrian government control since 2017. However, some parts of the province near the border with Jordan remain in rebel hands.

In June, sabotage attacks damaged five underwater pipelines off the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias in Tartous province.

Syria’s oil imports dropped in October 2018 and shortages began in early 2019, largely the result of tighter Western sanctions on Syria and renewed U.S. sanctions on key Syrian ally Iran.

Before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the country exported around half of the 350,000 barrels of oil it produced per day. Now its production is down to around 24,000 barrels a day, covering only a fraction of domestic needs.

In September, a drone and missile attack in Saudi Arabia hit the world’s largest crude oil processing plant, dramatically cutting into global oil supplies. Saudi Arabia says “Iranian weaponry” was used. Iran denies its weapons were involved.

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Boutique Hotel at the Separation Wall Between Israel and Palestine

In Bethlehem, the town where Christians believe Jesus was born, a hotel designed by famed graffiti artist Banksy offers a different kind of Christmas. The Walled Off Hotel abuts the separation wall which Israel has built on its border with the Palestinian West Bank, and has now become a canvas for protest against the Israeli occupation. The hotel boasts that each room offers “the worst view in the world”. Linda Gradstein reports from Bethlehem.

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Meals Get Wheels

Mother Dear’s Community Center was founded in 1957 by the late Rev. Annie Woodridge.  Her descendants continue her legacy of giving back to the community, preparing and distributing hundreds of meals to seniors and people in need during the holidays.  

Reporter/Camera: Gabrielle Weiss

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Sculpting Chocolate

The art of making chocolate: People in America features the story of Juliana Desmond, a chocolate artist in Tucson, Arizona. She tells us how a trip to Mexico helped her find her passion and how she’s helping it thrive in her homeland.  

Executive Producer: Marsha James, Camera: Kaveh Rezai, Adapted by: Zdenko Novacki 

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Trump Says He Will Sign Defense Spending Bill

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would sign a bill into law Friday that creates a space force and gives federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the $738 billion defense policy bill on Tuesday after the Democratic-led House approved the measure last week.

The measure funds the creation of Trump’s proposed space force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military in exchange for funding the Democrats’ parental leave proposal for federal employees.   

The space force will be the first new branch of the U.S. military in more than 60 years, and two million federal workers will have 12 weeks of parental leave for the first time in American history.

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Private Sector Joins Clean Energy Drive for Africa’s Refugees 

In northern Ethiopia, tens of thousands of mostly Eritrean refugees are getting connected to families back home, partly thanks to last year’s peace deal between Addis Ababa and Asmara, but also to clean energy. 
A Spanish alliance that includes three power companies is linking refugee camps in Shire, near the border with Eritrea, to the country’s energy grid, which largely relies on hydropower. The next step is equipping refugee households with solar energy. 

Private Sector Joins Clean Energy Drive for Africa’s Refugees video player.

“It’s a catalyst,” said Javier Mazorra, partnership coordinator for the group, Alianza Shire. “You need energy for health, you need energy for education, you need energy for protection, especially for women.” 
Humanitarians hope what is happening in Shire will someday become the new normal, amounting to a game changer for refugees, 90% of whom have limited access to electricity, according to the United Nations. Indeed, energy access counted among key issues addressed this week at a global refugee forum in Geneva, with Africa considered a top priority. 

Special Climate Action advisor Andrew Harper of UNHCR, which has launched a sustainable energy strategy for its refugee camps. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Climate action special adviser Andrew Harper of UNHCR, which has launched a sustainable energy strategy for its refugee camps. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“The current situation in Africa is pretty poor, pathetic,” said Andrew Harper, climate action special adviser for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which co-hosted the meeting. 
Often refugees have a single energy solution, “which is going to surrounding forests, woodland, and cutting it down,” Harper said. 
Greening Africa’s energy 
The refugee agency has launched a four-year strategy to transition to clean energy in all of its camps, although Harper offered no fixed deadline or price tag for doing so. A UNHCR-sponsored report out this week also found renewable energy to be a cost-effective and reliable energy source for refugees.   
For Africa in particular, the stakes are high — inside and outside refugee settings. Along with Asia, it has among the world’s highest rates of reliance on charcoal and firewood. Adding in charcoal exports, that has translated into massive deforestation in parts of the continent. 
Firewood- and charcoal-based energy also carry myriad other problems, posing health risks from smoky fires and security threats for women collecting charcoal, and heightening tensions between refugees and host communities who also rely on the fast-thinning trees. 
Many of these problems can be seen in East Africa, home to some of the continent’s largest refugee communities. 

Kathleen Callaghy of NGO Clean Cooking Alliance believes private sector should partner with humanitarian agency in bringing clean energy to refugees. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Kathleen Callaghy of NGO Clean Cooking Alliance believes the private sector should partner with humanitarian efforts in bringing clean energy to refugees. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“There are some energy solutions,” said Kathleen Callaghy, senior humanitarian program associate for Clean Cooking Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “But the funding, the political will and the capacity of organizations in the humanitarian community is not enough to sustain or expand these projects over time.” 
In drought-prone Ethiopia, the government launched a massive reforestation initiative that saw more than 350 million trees planted countrywide in a single day. 
Unsustainable energy practices persist for the nearly 1 million refugees Ethiopia hosts, said Fisseha Meseret Kindie, humanitarian assistance director at the country’s aid agency.  

Fisseha Meseret Kindie, of Ethopia's refugee agency, says the country needs support to develop clean energy for the refugees it hosts. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Fisseha Meseret Kindie, of Ethopia’s refugee agency, says the country needs support to develop clean energy for the refugees it hosts. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“The energy challenge is one of the prominent challenges we have,” he said, adding host communities are facing the fallout. 
Convincing private sector 
Transitioning to green energy in Africa will mean tapping a private sector that may be wary of investing in refugees and a continent deemed risky. 
“Quite honestly, there’s very little in it for them right now,” Callagh, of the Clean Cooking Alliance, said, suggesting alliances with humanitarian agencies as the way forward. 
But for Mazorra, of Alianza Shire, the payback is more than financial. 
“There are a lot of incentives,” he said, including learning to operate in risky settings. “When you are struggling with really poor resource situations, innovation is key. And there are some innovations that could go back to Spain.” 
Harper, of UNHCR, believes there’s another, broader case to be made. 
“We’re basically saying the market for energy in Africa is not just 6, 7 million refugees,” he said. “It’s 1.2 billion people. We’ve got to look at it as much more part of the rural electrification process across the continent.” 

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Trump Shows Off Democrat Defecting to Republican Party

President Donald Trump held a triumphant White House meeting Thursday to show off a Democratic congressman defecting to his Republican party, portraying the switch as proof that his impeachment is “a hoax.”

Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey was one of a handful of Democrats who bucked the party line and opposed Trump’s impeachment Wednesday on two counts.

Trump brought Van Drew to the Oval Office, seating him in one of the armchairs typically used for visiting foreign leaders, and told reporters “Jeff will now be joining the Republican party.”

“It’s a big deal,” Trump said. “I can say I am endorsing him.”

FILE – Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey departs after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump on two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 18, 2019.

Van Drew told Trump: “You have my undying support, always.”

Trump, clasping Van Drew’s hand, returned the pledge, saying: “Same way.”

For Trump, this stage-managed presentation of a political scalp underlined his Republican party’s total loyalty during impeachment.

Democrats were able to pass the two articles — abuse of office and obstruction of Congress — thanks to a healthy majority in the lower house.

But while Republicans were unanimous in voting against, the Democrats saw two of their members break with the party line on the first article and three on the second. Another member of the party sat out the vote.

Trump will now become only the third president in U.S. history to face a trial in the Senate, where his Republicans have the majority.

Trump once again branded the entire procedure a “hoax” and said, “I don’t feel like I am being impeached.”

Americans, he said, will still reelect him in 2020, in large part because “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. We’ve never done so well.”

Democrats say that testimony from senior government officials and diplomats proves that Trump used a hold-up of foreign aid to Ukraine to try and force the country into opening an unnecessary, politically damaging corruption probe against one of his main 2020 challengers, Joe Biden.

He then attempted to block officials from testifying before Congress or sharing documentation on the matter.

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Impeachment Reflects Deep American Divide

The U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to impeach President Donald Trump broke along party lines Wednesday, reflecting the American public’s deep divide over the president. 
National polls showed public opinion remained evenly split on the president’s impeachment, moving little since the process began. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 48% of those surveyed approved of the impeachment process, whereas an equal percentage opposed it. Those figures mirrored the president’s approval ratings, which also have fluctuated little since his first days in office. 
For some of the president’s biggest critics and supporters, impeachment brought an opportunity to publicly state their views outside the Capitol during the vote.  

Supporters react at U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., December 18, 2019. REUTERS…
FILE – Supporters react at President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich., Dec. 18, 2019.

“I think it’s a hoax, I think it’s a travesty, I think it’s damaging our democracy, I think it’s hurting our country. I think it’s really an invalid impeachment,” said Mark Kampf, a Trump supporter who came from Nevada to denounce what he considered a politically motivated process. 
Paki Wieland, however, joined the rally to call for the removal of Trump: “This president has broken so many laws and we need to hold him accountable. And to state to him and to the world that no one is above the law.” She also expressed concern that Republican partisanship was undermining the country’s democratic system of government. 
“I was here for the Nixon impeachment. Members of his party were much less partisan than members of the Republican Party are today,” Wieland said. 
Analyst Elaine Kamarck with the Brookings Institution in Washington said Americans have been divided politically for years, but Trump has tried to exploit those divisions for political gain. 
“Donald Trump has intensified the polarization. Throughout his presidency, he has played to his base. He has played to simply the supporters that he already has,” Kamarck said. 
Facts vs. opinions 

While public opinion shifted as evidence was uncovered in previous impeachment efforts, the testimony and evidence did little to shift opinions this time. That was in part because many Americans disagreed on the evidence itself. 
“There have been no facts. It’s only hearsay and innuendo,” Kampf, the Trump supporter, said. 
Adam from Maryland, dressed in an American flag shirt, shared the same view and said the process had only reinforced his trust in the president. 
“The only thing I am convinced about is when Trump released the transcript and proved the whistleblower completely wrong,” he said. 
And how people read the White House summary of the president’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to reflect their view of impeachment itself. 
Supporters saw the president exonerated by the summary of the call, in which Trump asked for a “favor”: an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Critics saw it as a straightforward example of the president using his office for personal political gain. 

Ray Bonachea holds a sign in favor of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, outside of the Trump National Doral Miami golf…
FILE – Ray Bonachea holds a sign in favor of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, outside the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort, Dec. 17, 2019, in Doral, Fla.

Kory Holmes from Maine said the Ukraine episode was the latest example of behavior that disqualifies the president from serving as the nation’s leader. 

Holmes said the testimonies and the documents released had provided sufficient proof that the president’s actions amounted to a pattern of misconduct that stretched back to the 2016 election. 
“This man constantly lies, breaks the law, violates every constitutional thing there is. He cheated with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to steal the first election and he’s trying to cheat for the second one,” he said. 
Views on impeachment 
Trump is expected to survive a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers would decide whether to remove him from office. 
The process will only help cement support for the president, said Adam, who added that impeachment was another example of what he called an anti-Trump agenda the Democrats have followed since the president’s election. 
For their part, pro-impeachment voters did not seem disheartened by the expected results in the Senate trial. They said the process was about much more. 
Holmes, of Maine, said impeachment was a victory for the laws and the Constitution of the United States. 
“They [lawmakers] have got to do the job. They swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. The man broke the law. This has nothing to do with the election — this is the law,” he said. 

People watch as members of the House of Representatives voting on article one of the impeachment against President Donald Trump…
FILE – People watch as members of the House of Representatives vote on the first article of impeachment against President Donald Trump, displayed on television monitors at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove bar on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 18, 2019.

Analyst Kamarck said she saw a deepened polarization among American voters because of the impeachment. She said Trump used the process to further corrode people’s trust in the government. But she also said she thought impeachment reinforced the constitutional guarantees and protections for the American democratic system. 
“The most important reason to do this, even though he will not most likely be removed from office, the most important reason to do this is to preserve what we call in the United States the separation of powers. Had they not done this, what they would have done is ceded an enormous amount of power to the president of the United States, and that is a precedent that they simply could not make,” Kamarck said. 
The process has energized the political base of each party. Analysts, such as Kamarck, said they expected to see the highest voter turnout in U.S. history for the 2020 elections. 

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Curtain Rises in Los Angeles for Last Democratic Presidential Debate of 2019

LOS ANGELES — It was touch and go for a while, but the final Democratic presidential debate of the year is on for Thursday night, with seven of the leading contenders thrashing it out on stage at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

A labor dispute between a university contractor and a food services union representing roughly 150 workers threatened to torpedo the Democratic debate after all seven of the presidential candidates vowed not to cross a picket line to take part in the nationally televised Democratic National Committee event. However, the union and company reached agreement Tuesday on a new three-year contract, prompting a sigh of relief from Democratic officials who had feared the sixth debate of the year was in jeopardy.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign stop in Hillsboro, N.H., Nov. 24, 2019.

The seven candidates include former vice president Joe Biden, the current front-runner in national polls, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. The three other lower-tier candidates are entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. These seven of 15 Democratic candidates seeking the nomination to challenge President Donald Trump next November survived a Democratic party winnowing process based on their showing in the polls and fundraising.

The high-profile debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico, is occurring a day after Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ironically, the debate originally was scheduled to be held on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), but had to be moved to Loyola Marymount because of a separate labor dispute. For Loyola Marymount students, that change in venue was a pleasant surprise.

“When I found out that it was going to be on campus, my first, my first thought was to change my flight home so I could stay,” said Havana Campo, a Loyola Marymount biochemistry student from Texas.

The debate is being held a week after final exams. While most students will not get to see the debate in person, a few lucky ones, such as Emily Sinsky, who is volunteering the day before the debate, has been given a seat in the debate hall.

“It’s exciting. I couldn’t believe,” said Sinsky, a Californian who is studying international relations.

Super Tuesday factor

One reason the debate is being held in California is because the solidly Democratic state has gained significance due to its primary election date being moved up by three months. With 495 delegates at stake, California will play a bigger role in determining who will represent the Democratic Party in challenging Trump than in past elections.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Charleston, S.C., Dec. 8, 2019.

“They [California’s primary elections] will be more relevant than they normally have been, because in most cases we know who the nominee will be by the time he got to California, and we were just ratifying what already had been decided,” said Michael Genovese, president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. “That got a little old for most Californians. So now, we’re going to be very important and we’ll have a strong say.”

Primary voters in California will be going to the polls on Super Tuesday, which is March 3, 2020. Thirteen other states will also hold primaries that day.

Money tree

California is also highly attractive to candidates because of its donors with deep pockets.

“Los Angeles is a place where candidates do not campaign so much as come for the money, to shake the money tree,” Genovese explained. “The donors come from a rich variety of sources. You’ve got Hollywood. You’ve got a very strong component of the gay community.”

There are also tech companies, lawyers and donors in the corporate world from Los Angeles who would be willing to give to their preferred candidate.

Candidates and issues

With the top four contenders being Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, “what’s unusual is that we have so many older candidates running and at first you thought maybe this is going to be a generational debate,” Genovese said. “The older voters and the older candidates versus the younger generations. It hasn’t quite worked out that way except maybe with Yang and Buttigieg.” Biden, Sanders and Warren are all in their 70s, while Buttigieg is the youngest candidate at 37.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Iowa Farmers Union Presidential Forum in Grinnell, Iowa, Dec. 6, 2019.

Some younger voters are looking at their candidates from a broader lens outside of a candidate’s age.

“Age is not particularly a concern if the candidate that you’re supporting is more part of a greater movement, and if they select a vice president that really doubles down on their beliefs,” said Luke Hart-Moynihan, a screenwriting graduating student at Loyola Marymount University.

One candidate taking the debate stage that should be watched, analysts say, is Yang, who most likely will not make it to the top, but did qualify for the debate just before the deadline.

“He’s established himself as a player. So the question is not what will Yang do now, it’s what will he do in the next two, four, six, eight or 10 years,” Genovese said. “You can see him being in a Democratic president’s Cabinet, establishing himself as a person of weight and gravitas, and sort of channeling that to something bigger in the future.”

Diverse interests

Many of the Loyola Marymount students who are following the debates are focused on Sanders and Warren. The topics that interest them are as diverse as the students’ backgrounds.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H., Dec. 8, 2019.

“Three topics in this election that concern me the most would be climate change, health care and immigration reform. I come from a family of immigrants,” said Campo, who is the daughter of a Cuban mother and Colombian father.

“One thing that I feel I have not heard enough from the Democratic candidates is talking about both election security and election legitimacy, because over the past several decades, there have been a lot of concerns about gerrymandering of congressional districts, voter disenfranchisement through voter identification laws,” said Peter Martin, a political science student from California.

“We’re starting to hear a lot more about student debt. Issues that affect young voters, which is really important,” said Gabriella Jeakle, an English major from Washington state, voicing a concern of many of her schoolmates.

Sinsky, the student who plans to attend the debate, said if she had a chance, she would ask the candidates what they would do in their first 100 days in office.

“That really shows where their values are,” Sinsky said.

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Russia Seeks to Build Local Force in Northeast Syria

Russia has been working to establish a new military force in the Kurdish-majority, northeastern part of Syria with the aim to deploy those troops and hardware to areas along the Syria-Turkey border, local sources told VOA.

The military force reportedly would replace a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-armed group that Turkey claims are terrorists.

“The Russians have already opened recruitment centers in two towns in our region, including Amuda and Tal Tamr,” said a Kurdish journalist, requesting anonymity.

He told VOA he knows “several young people who have signed up to join this force,” adding that Russia is primarily “recruiting ethnic Kurds.”

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed to VOA that Russian efforts were under way to build an allied force in the Kurdish region.

Kurdish military officials said they were aware of Russia’s plans, noting the new fighters will largely be used for patrol missions, along with Russian troops in the area.

“Those joining the new force are our people,” said a senior commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “We want to make sure that we have a close military relationship with Russia,” he told VOA on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter to the media.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are pictured during preparations to join the front against Turkish forces, near the northern Syrian town of Hasakeh, Oct. 10, 2019.
FILE – Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are pictured during preparations to join the front against Turkish forces, near the northern Syrian town of Hasakeh, Oct. 10, 2019.

The SDF official ruled out any potential confrontation between the newly established Russian forces and the U.S.-backed SDF, since “we are essentially involved in the recruiting and vetting process of the new fighters.”  

The SDF is a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been an effective partner with the United States in its fight against Islamic State in Syria.

SDF officials have stated to VOA they have at least 85,000 fighters who have been trained and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition to defeat IS.

Following a decision in October by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces near the Syria-Turkey border, the Turkish military and allied Syrian militias began an offensive in northeast Syria to clear the region from the Syrian Kurdish fighters Turkey views as terrorists.

Ankara says the SDF is an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The U.S., however, makes a distinction between the two Kurdish groups.  

‘Return of regime authority’ 

In response to the Turkish incursion into Syria’s northeast, Syrian Kurds have allowed the Syrian regime and Russian troops to deploy in the area in an attempt to halt the Turkish operation. Since then, Russia has been trying to increase its presence in the region, experts say.  

“Russia’s goal is the return of regime authority in the east of the Euphrates,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank.

Syrian Kurdish forces took control of the area in 2012 after Syrian government troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebel groups elsewhere in the war-ravaged country.

TOPSHOT - A convoy of Russian military vehicles drives toward the northeastern Syrian city of Kobane on October 23, 2019. -…
FILE – A convoy of Russian military vehicles heads for the Syrian city of Kobane, Oct. 23, 2019.

With the U.S. withdrawal from some areas in northeast Syria, Syrian government forces appear to be poised to regain control of the Kurdish-held region.

Largely depleted after eight years of fighting rebels throughout the country, the Syrian military is unlikely capable of asserting its authority over this part of Syria.

Russia “understands that the regime is currently too weak to achieve this,” Spyer told VOA. “Hence, Moscow appears to be establishing new bodies to try to push the gradual reconnection of Kurdish forces in northeast Syria to the Syrian state.”

Long-term presence

Some experts, such as Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, think Russia’s recent move suggests it has plans for a long-term presence in the area.

“This is consistent with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s overall approach to the region — control by relying on local actors,” she told VOA. “The relationship with the Kurds is especially important because Syria’s oil right now is critical to control in Syria,” Borshchevskaya added.

Russia vs. U.S.

After mounting pressure from the U.S. Congress and U.S. foreign allies, Trump decided to keep about 500 U.S. troops in the area to protect the region’s oil fields, and prevent IS and Syrian regime troops from accessing them.

“As minuscule as Syria’s oil reserves are in terms of its global market share, oil revenue has become critical for keeping the [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad regime afloat,” Borshchevskaya said. “U.S. and Kurdish-led forces collect oil revenue, but with the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, the Kurds have little choice but to work more closely with Putin and Assad.”

“These latest Kremlin moves in Syria show that Putin is building additional leverage in Syria, with implications for the entire region — and U.S. interests,” Borshchevskaya added.

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Trump Senate Impeachment Trial Thrusts Chief Justice Into Limelight

For a man fixated on the image of the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts faces a unique challenge in presiding over President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, expected next month.

For only the third time in the nation’s history, the Senate will weigh the evidence generated by the House of Representatives and determine whether to oust a sitting president from office.

As the head of the high court, Roberts, a Republican appointee, has taken pains in recent years to explain that the court is not a partisan bench, but a body of judicial “umpires” calling balls and strikes. 

Projecting an air of independence

However, as he assumes the gavel in January and guides the impeachment trial to what is almost certain to be an acquittal, Roberts must project an air of independence from the Republican majority defending the president.

“He’s undoubtedly going to recognize that any appearance of partiality to one side or the other is going to reflect to some degree on the side’s view of the court of which he’s the head,” said Frank Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of a history of impeachment. “He is going to be particularly interested in preserving the integrity of the court, far more than he is in the outcome of this particular proceeding.”

The historic trial comes at a time when many critics are openly questioning the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. These critics say the high court has become a highly politicized body, with its nine justices, appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, often voting on matters of consequence along predictably ideological lines.

Protests grew louder after Kavanaugh appointment

The protests have grown louder since June 2018, when Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the court, retired and Trump picked Brett Kavanaugh, a more conservative jurist, as his replacement. With the Kavanaugh appointment – which came amid accusations of sexual assault – the conservatives cemented their hold on the court, spurring Democratic fears that the justices will overturn consequential legal precedents on abortion and gay rights, and rubber-stamp Trump’s controversial policies on a range of issues.

FILE - Supreme Court Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch, left, and Brett Kavanaugh watch as President Donald Trump arrives to give his State of the Union address to a joint session on Congress at the Capitol in Washington.
FILE – Supreme Court Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch, left, and Brett Kavanaugh watch as President Donald Trump arrives to give his State of the Union address to a joint session on Congress at the Capitol in Washington.

Yet Roberts, a moderate conservative with a proclivity for occasionally crossing party lines, has emerged as something of a “median” justice on the bench. While he voted in favor of Trump’s “travel ban” on several Muslim-majority countries last year, the chief justice angered many on the right when he joined the four liberals this year in rejecting a controversial administration plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. 

Roberts rebuked Trump

Roberts typically maintains a low profile. Now, with Trump’s impeachment, Roberts is being thrust into the public eye and the awkward position of presiding over the trial of a president who once disparaged him as “an absolute disaster” and with whom he publicly clashed last year.

The quarrel with Trump happened after the president berated a federal judge who had ruled against his asylum policy as an “Obama judge,” referring to former President Barack Obama. That prompted Roberts to issue a rare public rebuke.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement, referring to Trump, Obama and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Trump fired back 

That did not sit well with Trump, who fired back on Twitter that the chief was “wrong.” However, the highly unusual statement underscored the length to which the chief justice has been willing to go to defend the court’s institutional integrity and in the process secure his own legacy.

“I think it shows that Chief Justice Roberts is taking his responsibility as the presiding officer, the chief executive officer of the machinery of the federal judiciary very, very seriously,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

During the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial, Richards served as a clerk to then-Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is Roberts’ predecessor.

Rehnquist role largely ceremonial

Richards said Roberts will likely look to Rehnquist’s performance for clues on how to conduct an impeachment trial.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist reads the vote tally in the Senate's impeachment trial of President Clinton, as…
FILE – Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist reads the vote tally in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Clinton, as Clinton’s attorney Charles Ruff (L) listens.

Rehnquist’s role was largely ceremonial, restricted by Senate rules that permitted a simple majority of senators to override his rulings. On the rare occasion that he did issue a ruling, such as upholding a senator’s objection when a House manager addressed the senators as “jurors,” it was largely inconsequential.

“I think [Roberts] is going to realize, as Chief Justice Rehnquist did before him, that this is a slightly different kind of proceeding from the one that he’s used to presiding over at the court,” Richards said.

Senate no ordinary court

The Constitution gives the Senate the “sole power” to try all impeachments, and designates the chief justice as the presiding judge for presidential impeachment trials.

When the likely Trump trial gets underway, the Senate will be transformed into something of an impeachment court, but it will be very different from an ordinary court, with senators doubling as jurors and judges, and wielding the power to override the presiding judge on any procedural point.

That will limit the chief justice’s authority, something that Roberts will likely welcome, Bowman said.

“Beyond exerting whatever moral suasion he has, he has very little real power,” Bowman said. “And my sense is that he, like Justice Rehnquist, is going to want to keep a low profile.”

On the other hand, if the Senate agrees to new rules allowing witnesses and cross-examinations, Roberts is likely to take on a larger role, Richards said.

“By definition, there is going to be a more active chief justice just because he’s going to have to deal with objections and reluctant witnesses and claims of executive privilege of the sort that just didn’t come up in the Clinton trial,” Richards said.

McConnell says trial is a ‘political process’

That scenario is far from certain. Complicating matters for Roberts, Senate Republicans have dispensed with all pretense that this will be a deliberate judicial process.

“I’m not an impartial juror. This is a political process. There is not anything judicial about it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

Last week, McConnell, a close Trump ally, said he’ll be coordinating with the White House throughout the trial.

While not illegal, the planned coordination “certainly runs contrary to the tradition that the Senate has tried to uphold of at least appearing to represent a thoughtful deliberative, natural decision,” Bowman said.

It also puts Roberts on the spot, said Jeffrey Tulis, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who has written about impeachment.

Paradoxically, however, the trial may enable the chief justice to burnish his court’s image as an apolitical institution, Tulis said.

“It will reconfirm the view that that guy is a justice, he’s not a politician,” he said.


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