News Brief: Primary Results, Coronavirus, U.S. Troops In Syria

Mar 11, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 10:59 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The first three contests in the Democratic primary seem like a lifetime away. Joe Biden did so badly in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada that political pundits started to talk about whether he would ever be able to turn it around. He did just that on Super Tuesday and again in primaries last night.

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JOE BIDEN: Tonight, we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House. That's our ultimate goal.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So the former vice president decisively won four of yesterday's contests, and that includes Michigan. That state's 125 delegates were considered a must-win for Senator Bernie Sanders to keep up in the race. Biden is now even further ahead of Sanders. And at the end of the night, Biden tried to make it sound like the nomination is a done deal.

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BIDEN: And I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion. We share a common goal. And together, we'll defeat Donald Trump.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was watching it all and joins us this morning. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: I mean, we said this after Super Tuesday, we say it again - what a turnaround for Joe Biden.

LIASSON: What a turnaround for Joe Biden. This race is not decided yet. But Joe Biden's coalition appears to be broad and durable. His lead, if not insurmountable, is getting very, very hard to overcome. And Bernie Sanders' coalition once again failed to show up, particularly young voters. He had said that he was going to be able to turn them out in huge numbers, but they just haven't been doing that.

MARTIN: Right. So we saw both campaigns, actually, last night - Biden's and Sanders' - cancel big rallies that were supposed to happen in Ohio because of the coronavirus. That did not stop Biden, though, from giving a victory speech in Philadelphia last night. Let's listen to more of it.

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BIDEN: And at this moment when there's so much fear in the country and there's so much fear across the world, we need American leadership. We need presidential leadership that's honest, trusted, truthful and steady.

MARTIN: So he clearly wants to make this a two-person race now, himself against Donald Trump. What did you take away from his speech last night?

LIASSON: Well, I think that clip played it all, you know. We have said it all. We've seen a lot of different types of Joe Biden speeches - some of them are rambly (ph), some of them are shouty. But this one was purposefully calm, sending a very clear message in a crisis. He's going to give a whole speech tomorrow on the coronavirus. But that speech was meant to stand out as a contrast to Donald Trump's sometimes chaotic leadership style. The speech was calm, purposely steady and serious.

It was a presidential speech even down to the atmospherics. He gave it in Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Jill, were dressed a little more formally than they have been on other primary nights. Everything about his speech last night was meant to meet the moment. The moment, of course, is a public health crisis, not just a primary.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about Bernie Sanders. I mean, he did not speak last night.

LIASSON: No. He went home to Vermont. He didn't speak. It's hard to see a path ahead of him given that the states next week are also hard for him, in particular Florida, where his praise for Fidel Castro has created a backlash. But if we've learned anything, there can be big unexpected curves ahead. So this race is not over yet.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Will a 1-mile containment zone stop the spread of coronavirus in the city of New Rochelle, N.Y.?

GREENE: Yeah. More than a hundred cases have been confirmed in that community just north of New York City, making it the largest cluster of cases now in the United States. New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, called in the National Guard to support people living in this containment area. Troops are going to be delivering food to residents who are confined and will clean public gathering spaces.

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ANDREW CUOMO: This will be a period of disruption for the local community. I understand that. This is a public health decision. And this is literally a matter of life and death.

GREENE: So this new policy goes into effect tomorrow and will remain in place through the 25 of March.

MARTIN: We've got Brian Mann with us now of North Country Public Radio. And he was in New Rochelle yesterday. Brian, can you just start off by explaining how the containment zone - how this is supposed to actually work in practice?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. So what state officials have done here, Rachel, is they've drawn a big circle with a 1-mile radius that centers on the synagogue in New Rochelle where a lot of these cases seem to have originated. Inside that area, more than a half-dozen schools will close, churches - all gathering places shut down. No big groups of people will be allowed.

Now, this isn't like what we've seen in Italy or China. People can still leave their homes. They can go shopping and even leave the area if they choose. But the hope is that by limiting clusters of people, they're going to help break the chain of transmission.

MARTIN: So what was it like there?

MANN: People are scared. I mean, in much of the country, including here in New York City, where I am now, coronavirus feels still kind of unreal. It's invisible, people not sure how big a deal it's going to be. But there in New Rochelle, it is changing people's lives right now. People keep getting sick. I spoke yesterday with Rita Mabli, who runs one of the nursing homes in the area where visitors have been banned from seeing their loved ones.

RITA MABLI: We do have some families that are very angry at not being able to visit mother or father. And I understand that. And I so empathize with that.

MANN: But, you know, she says the risk of elderly people being exposed to this virus is just too high right now in this community.

MARTIN: Oh, that would be hard.

MANN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, I mean, let's just take a second and talk about the economics of this because the global economy has obviously taken a massive hit. I can only imagine the local economy in New Rochelle has seen an effect.

MANN: Yeah. It's really hard. The streets are empty, shops empty. The cost of managing this outbreak is spiraling upward. I spoke with New Rochelle's mayor, Noam Bramson, yesterday. And he says as this drags on, it's getting harder and harder on people.

NOAM BRAMSON: Particularly those who are quarantined, having their lives disrupted in terms of work and school and normal interactions with their neighbors. At the same time, I'm very proud of how our community has risen to the challenge.

MANN: More broadly, Rachel, you know, calling out the National Guard is the kind of thing that could contribute to volatility on Wall Street. New York state as a whole relies on Wall Street for tax revenue. Governor Cuomo says he's asking state officials to reevaluate how this epidemic could affect a state budget that already had a $6 billion deficit even before coronavirus hit.

MARTIN: Wow. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has been reporting on the situation in New Rochelle, N.Y. Brian, thanks. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK. To Syria now. U.S. troops in the northeastern part of that country are tasked with a new mission - keeping oil fields safe from Russian and Syrian forces.

GREENE: Right. So this is the region where last year American and Kurdish forces defeated ISIS. But hundreds of U.S. service members are still on the ground there.

MARTIN: All right. Let's talk more about what they're doing with NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, who has been traveling with some of those American forces in northeastern Syria. And he joins us now from northern Iraq. Tom, good morning. Explain this. American troops are in Syria protecting oilfields from the Syrian government. Why?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's right. Well, Rachel, if you'll remember, President Trump wanted all U.S. forces out last fall, but agreed to keep a small number - about 600 or so - to secure these oilfields not only from ISIS, but also from Syrian government and Russian forces as well. Now, they want the Kurdish forces, who they're working with, to use the proceeds from the oil to pay for their operations against ISIS and also as leverage for any future political deal with the Syrian government.

Now, it's all gotten more complicated here after Turkey invaded last fall, and together with its Russian allies, pushed out the American forces, reducing their presence by about half to an area, really, roughly the size of Vermont. Now, when we were in Syria last week, we were with soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard. They actually came under attack guarding these oil fields from armed drones. A handful of mortars were dropped and narrowly missed them. U.S. investigators say the bombs were sophisticated. And, Rachel - get this - some of the components, they say, were made by 3D printers.

MARTIN: Wow.

BOWMAN: Now, there's no sense where the drones came from. But speculation is they were from Syrian government militias which were operating about a half-hour away. But obviously there's great worry now that this is a new and possibly growing threat to U.S. troops.

MARTIN: Wow. So the U.S. is trying to build up the Kurds' ability to fight ISIS in the region. I mean, what is the status...

BOWMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Of that fight right now?

BOWMAN: Well, it was about a year ago - actually, March 23 - that ISIS suffered a resounding defeat. The final village was taken at the hands of these U.S.-backed forces. But ISIS fighters, Rachel, are seeping back into the cities and villages, mounting assassinations against officials, planting bombs and intimidating residents. So the U.S. forces here continue to work with the Kurds to go after them.

Just a week ago, the U.S. arrested a mid-level ISIS leader. And here in Iraq, ISIS is still deadly to U.S. forces. A few days ago, two Marines were killed in the mountains - actually, you can see them from here - searching a tunnel used by ISIS. U.S. officers tell us that they must keep pressure on the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria so it doesn't rise again.

MARTIN: I mean, we are lucky to have you there on the ground to be able to do this reporting and talk to people, right? I mean, what have you been hearing from people living in the area?

BOWMAN: Well, these Kurdish villagers are - in Syria - are desperately afraid of the Turkish invasion. Turkey sees these Kurds as allied with Kurdish militants inside Turkey. And they say Turkey was shelling their villages. Turkish militias were sacking their homes.

And they said hundreds of families fled south to an area where the American forces are operating. Some of the families are living in an abandoned school, we saw. Others found houses to stay in. And still, others say they want to leave the country. And they're angry at America for not protecting them.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He has been reporting and traveling in northeastern Syria with producer Marisa Penaloza. They're reporting this morning from Erbil, Iraq. Thanks very much, Tom. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.