Oct 21, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. We've got the 1,685 words (6 minutes) you need to catch up on today's global news.

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Situational awareness: Polls will be closing across Canada between now and 10pm ET. We're expecting a close race as Justin Trudeau attempts to claw his way to another term. We’ll have full coverage on our website and in Thursday’s edition.

1 big thing: Leaving Syria but keeping the oil

Heading out of town. Photo: Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A U.S. military convoy withdrawing from Syria for Iraq today was pelted with fruit and stones by Kurdish civilians who accuse the superpower they once saw as their protector of leaving them in peril.

Driving the news: “We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives,” President Trump responded back in Washington. He said the U.S. would keep small detachments in Syria at the request of Israel and Jordan and to “protect the oil," but there was otherwise "no reason" to remain.

  • "We want to keep the oil, and we'll work something out with the Kurds. ... Maybe we'll have one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly," Trump said.
  • He also insisted a ceasefire announced from Turkey last week by Vice President Pence was holding despite “some skirmishes.”

What to watch: The deal expires tomorrow night and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to resume his offensive if the so-called “safe zone” he’s demanded isn’t cleared of Kurdish fighters. Erdogan will be meeting tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • According to Brett McGurk, who resigned as Trump’s counter-ISIS envoy over a planned withdrawal last December, it's now "in the hands of Putin" whether "an epic humanitarian catastrophe" unfolds in Syrian border cities like Kobane that had been held by Kurdish forces.

Behind the scenes: I asked McGurk today whether he'd ever heard Trump express interest in what would become of Syria.

  • "He talked about defeating the ISIS caliphate, he takes credit for it, but beyond that, I don’t think he has much of a significant concern," McGurk said, speaking at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
  • While the U.S. had several stated objectives in Syria that required long-term commitments — including remaining until Iran was out and the peace process finalized — McGurk said he never once heard Trump himself vocalize them.
  • “In fact, he basically says, ‘the Russians and anybody else can do what they want,’” McGurk continued.
  • Why it matters: “If the president isn’t fully bought into a policy, particularly when it comes to war and peace ... when there's a crisis he’s not going to really have anyone’s back.”

Trump did express interest in what would happen to Syria's oil. McGurk said he explored the issue with Rex Tillerson, who was then secretary of state and previously ExxonMobil CEO.

Reality check: "I think [Tillerson's] phrase was, 'That's not how oil works,'" McGurk said, noting that the oil legally belongs to the Syrian state.

  • “Maybe there are new lawyers, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets."

The bottom line: "We don’t want these resources to get in the hands of terrorists or others, but maybe Trump should have thought about this before he basically made a decision that unraveled the tapestry that had been working relatively well," McGurk said.

Go deeper ... Expert Voices: Years of muddled U.S. strategy deepened Syria crisis

2. What sparked the protests?

Santiago is burning. Photo: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

Unpopular policies have exposed deep underlying anger in Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador and Hong Kong.

1. Chile has seen at least eight killed, 2,100 arrested, dozens of metro stations torched and thousands of troops in the streets after a weekend of riots carried over int

  • The spark: A now-withdrawn plan to raise metro fares in Santiago.
  • Why it matters: Chile has long stood out for its relative affluence and stability. But it's also "the poster child for extreme economic inequality in a developed country," tweets the NYT's Binyamin Appelbaum, who says it's hard to understand why there wasn't more political unrest before now.

2. Massive demonstrations in Lebanon over government corruption, poor services and high unemployment continued for a fifth day today.

  • The spark: A now-withdrawn plan to tax users of WhatsApp, the messaging service.
  • Why it matters: Lebanese politics and society are largely divided on sectarian lines, but the country appears united now in anger. Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced reforms today, including steep cuts to lawmakers' salaries, but the protesters were unmoved. They're calling for the fall of the government.

Between the lines: Backtracking can work, at least temporarily. Protests in Ecuador that had grown so intense that President Lenín Moreno was forced to flee the capital quieted after he withdrew a plan to end fuel subsidies.

  • But it doesn't always. By the time Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leadership suspended a bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to the mainland, the momentum behind pro-democracy protests had rumbled far beyond their control.
3. Africa: Nile dispute flows to Russia

The dam, as of 2017. Photo: Gioia Forster/picture alliance via Getty Images

A tense debate over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam — which will be Africa’s largest dam — will continue in an unlikely location this week: Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Why it matters: Egypt fears the $4 billion dam will disrupt the flow of the Nile, which supplies nearly all of the desert country’s fresh water. Ethiopia, which views the dam not only as an economic boon but as a point of national pride, claims Egypt is attempting to trample its sovereignty and economic development.

  • Tensions over the dam have flared between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan since construction began in 2011.
  • With its completion now in sight, one critical question is how quickly the dam’s reservoir will be filled. “While Ethiopia wants to fill the reservoir within four years, Egypt wants a slower pace that can be varied in response to droughts,” per the FT.
  • The longer-term concern is water loss. “With its population predicted to reach 120 million by 2030, Egypt is on track to hit the threshold for ‘absolute water scarcity,’” per CNN.
  • Egypt is also concerned about the flow to its own massive dam — the Aswan High Dam — 1,600 miles downriver from Ethiopia’s.

What to watch: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister (and newly minted Nobel laureate) Abiy Ahmed will be among the 35 African leaders at the first Africa-Russia summit later this week.

  • Sisi is calling for third-party mediation over the dam negotiations. Ahmed hasn’t agreed. But Vladimir Putin might see himself as just the man to step in.
4. Latin America: Evo and the disappearing votes

Photo: John Duran/Getty Images

Election returns from Bolivia last night showed President Evo Morales falling short of the 10% margin needed to avoid a run-off — until they stopped showing anything at all.

Zoom out: Morales became the Andean nation's first indigenous president in 2006 and has been in power ever since, overseeing solid economic growth and the consolidation of control over institutions and much of the media.

  • A left-wing survivor on a continent that has swung to the right, Morales lost a referendum in 2016 over whether he could even seek a fourth term. But in his telling, he's back on the ballot by popular demand.

"Such has been his influence as president that many people from across the political spectrum describe him as Bolivia’s equivalent to Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — someone who 'refounded' a nation," writes the FT's Andres Schipani, who spent a day with Morales on the campaign trail.

  • "Critics argue that his ego is becoming out of control — reflected in the construction of a new 25-storey presidential palace in La Paz and a museum in his birthplace to honour him."
  • "But he dismisses the idea that a cult of personality has grown up around his presidency. 'I am still a humble man, nothing has changed, you can judge for yourself,' he says."

Zoom in: Morales was leading his main challenger, former president Carlos Mesa, by a 45%-38% margin with 84% of the vote in, per the BBC.

  • Morales continued to insist he'd won a new term outright, leading to fears he planned to use shady means to block a high-risk December run-off.
5. Middle East: Bibi can't get a government

Ready to do this all over again? Photo: Heidi Levine/AFP/Getty Images

After a close-run election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government but failed to do so before his mandate expired.

  • If that sounds like old news, it's because it happened again for the second time in six months.
  • Last time, Netanyahu engineered fresh elections. This time, the mandate will pass to his center-left rival, Benny Gantz.

But, but, but: Israeli politics are deadlocked, and Gantz is also unlikely to succeed, Axios contributor Barak Ravid writes:

  • After Israel's Sept. 27 election ended in a near tie, Netanyahu and Gantz were pushed to the negotiating table by President Reuven Rivlin, who proposed a unity government with a rotating prime minister.
  • Gantz demanded to be prime minister first. He'd vowed not to serve under Netanyahu while the prime minister faced looming corruption indictments.
  • Netanyahu refused to go second. Under Israeli law, he'd have to resign when indicted if he held a lower post.

The big picture: This is the first time since 2008 that anyone other than Netanyahu has been asked to form a government.

  • But unless Gantz manages to somehow cobble together a coalition in the next 28 days, he'll return the mandate to Rivlin.
  • The president will then have another 21 days to consult with the different factions to try to find a solution.

What to watch: If all that fails, expect Israel's third election this year.

6. Asia: The emperor has no fun

Naruhito, lounging in his favorite armchair. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The spectacle surrounding Japanese Emperor Naruhito, who will be formally "enthroned" tomorrow, might suggest majesty and power. But his life is actually "absurdly formal and arcane," per the Economist.

  • Bureaucrats at the Imperial Household Agency "go to extraordinary lengths to protect the imperial family’s image."
  • "Unlike in most European monarchies, there is no prurient tabloid coverage of the royals’ love lives — although there is frequent criticism of royal wives and daughters."
  • "The royal family’s relatively limited personal wealth, meanwhile, means that there is little scope for playboy princes or tearaway princesses. Most of the royal family’s assets were confiscated after the second world war."
  • "That leaves the royal family as a species of cosseted but absurdly circumscribed civil servant, their lives arranged in minute detail by bureaucrats, their public statements carefully vetted to ensure they do not overstep their role as constitutional figureheads."
  • "[T]raditionalists see the emperor’s main job as performing obscure Shinto rituals. Next month he will offer rice from two regions of Japan (chosen based on priests’ interpretation of the cracks in a burnt tortoise shell) to the gods to thank them for the harvest, flanked by torch-bearing priests."

The bottom line: The bubble around Naruhito might insulate him from "familiarity and ridicule," the Economist notes, but it also "risks making him ... a relic."

7. Stories we're watching

Dervishes whirl in Bursa, Turkey. Photo: Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

  1. Global pork prices soar as swine fever infects herds in Asia
  2. NBA braces for pro-Hong Kong protests as season kicks off
  3. Expert Voices: China trade war gives foreign farmers edge on U.S.
  4. At least 69 killed in Afghanistan mosque attack
  5. Rudy's shadow foreign policy a problem for Trump
  6. Diplomat flagged Hunter Biden's Ukraine work in 2015
  7. Trump dropping climate change from G7 agenda


"We deeply regret the decision of the President of United States to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria which marks another landmark in the change of American foreign policy in the Near and Middle East."
— A rare joint statement from the foreign affairs chiefs in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.K., France, Germany and the European Parliament