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Situational awareness: Kim Jong-un has arrived in China for a visit with Xi Jinping, Chinese state media reports. "Kim's visit, his fourth summit with Xi, comes amid reports of advanced negotiations for a second summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump," per CNBC.
Coming or going? U.S. military vehicles near Syria's Manbij. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump’s sudden announcement that the U.S. would pull out of Syria stunned the key players in the conflict, prompted America’s panicked Kurdish allies to turn to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Nearly three weeks later, the withdrawal seems to be getting less imminent by the day.
Catch up quick:
Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both visiting the Middle East this week to signal to allies like Israel and adversaries like Iran that, as a State Department official put it, “The United States is not leaving the Middle East. … We are not going anywhere.”
The policy divide:
There is a pattern of “Trump saying we’re getting out and his advisers saying we’re staying in,” Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations tells me. Gordon, who served as Barack Obama’s top Middle East adviser, says the moment of truth may be when Trump is asked about the apparent contradictions between his statements on Syria and Bolton's:
“I guess we’ll find out then if Bolton actually speaks for the president or if we’re back to ‘ISIS is defeated and we’re getting out.'”
One fundamental tension is that Bolton and Pompeo see containing the threat from Iran as central to America’s interests in Syria. Trump, who has long said his only goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS, said last week that Iran “can do what they want” there.
The bottom line: "The danger of such inconsistency is that America's word becomes meaningless, leading allies to doubt Washington's promises and adversaries its resolve," writes Joel Rubin of the Washington Strategy Group for Axios Expert Voices. "Because Trump has neither responded to Bolton's statements nor clarified his position, it's unclear how committed he is to the Syria withdrawal."
Vehicles and structures of the US-backed coalition forces in Manbij. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty
As Mark Landler noted on today’s episode of the NY Times' The Daily podcast, Trump’s Syria announcement unleashed a torrent of criticism — that he was empowering Russia and Iran, paving the way for ISIS’ return, risking Israel's security, betraying the Kurds — but also “stimulated a conversation about whether ‘forever wars’ are the best way to prevent terrorism.”
What to watch: Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security tells me even if the letter of Trump's order is followed, the hawks might still get their way:
"There's every chance that two years from now, three years from now, five years from now there's effectively no difference in the size of U.S. presence on the ground in Syria. It just will be with paramilitaries and private military contractors, not the U.S. military. And nobody's really talking about that."
The immediate consequence of a U.S. withdrawal would be a scramble for control in eastern Syria, now controlled by Kurdish forces.
Trump's announcement caused the Kurds, fearing a possible Turkish onslaught, to seek a deal with the Syrian government. They view Assad as the least-bad option, Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, told Vice:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, seemed almost spooked by Trump's sudden decision (which was reportedly made in a call between the two), Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute told me.
The big picture:
"CIA Director Gina Haspel has appointed another woman to the top level of the agency, naming Cynthia 'Didi' Rapp as deputy director for analysis, essentially the top analyst in the CIA. The appointment means that the top three directorates of the agency, for operations, analysis and science and technology are now all headed by women."— NBC News
"Oh, the coup! I thought you said stop the coupe..." Gabonese gendarmes patrol while people demonstrate near the headquarters of the national broadcaster. Photo: Steve Jordan/AFP/Getty
1. Gabon's government says an attempted military coup was easily put down today and everything is now "under control." The oil-rich country has been controlled by the Bongo family for a half century of relative political stability.
2. Sudan's interior minister says more than 800 people have been arrested since last month amid a string of protests against President Omar al-Bashir's government.
3. Congo's electoral commission has delayed its presidential announcement, saying only half the results from the Dec. 30 presidential vote are in.
A massive elephant in Kenya that escaped an attack by poachers who shot it with a poisoned arrow. Photo: Victoria Peckett & Philip Ladmor/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
"Several African countries with some of the world’s largest elephant populations will push this year for looser controls on legal ivory trade, while another group of countries on the continent says more restrictions are the best way to curb the illegal killing of elephants for their tusks," AP's Christopher Torchia reports from Johannesburg.
Go deeper: This comes after Japan announced it will resume commercial whaling — a decision that's actually more complicated than it sounds.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
From our quarterly Axios Trends special report ... This will be a big few months for global democracy.
The big picture: The leadership of roughly a quarter of the world will be decided as three of the seven largest countries by population will hold general elections.
An Indian farmer returns home with his livestock in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Gagan Nayar/AFP/Getty
“We have finally liberated our ancient Church from Moscow's captivity."— Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
Thanks for reading — see you Thursday!