Welcome back to Axios World. This is our lucky 156th edition and it's jam-packed. 1,636 words, 6 minutes, 1 global trek.
The White House is insisting that President Trump did not offer Turkey a “green light” to slaughter U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria last night and that the U.S. wouldn't bear responsibility for any Islamic State resurgence in the area.
Why it matters: Confusion and concern followed the sudden announcement last night — after a call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — that the U.S. would withdraw from the “immediate area” into which Turkish troops are expected to advance.
The latest: A senior administration official told reporters on a call tonight that Trump was withdrawing 50–100 special forces troops currently operating near the Turkey-Syria border, but not pulling out of Syria entirely.
Kurdish forces are guarding camps that hold thousands of suspected ISIS fighters and have warned they may have to abandon them to counter Turkey.
Between the lines: Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War tells Axios that whether this "spirals into a broader regional war" depends on how the Kurds react to what will likely be a "limited" initial Turkish incursion.
The big picture: The senior U.S. official said this was “not the beginning of a formal pullout of Syria,” but added that both Trump and the American people “want our troops home as soon as possible.”
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather near the border. Photo: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
1. Top U.S. officials have long argued that America gets outsized benefits from its relatively small presence in Syria.
2. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG to be a terrorist organization affiliated with the PKK, which it has been fighting since 1984.
3. "Syrian Kurds, betrayed by the U.S., could turn to the Assad regime and the Russians for protection against Turkey — an outcome the U.S. has sought to avoid. The net result could be the return of significant parts of northeast Syria to regime control without Damascus having to fire a shot," Lang continues.
4. "America’s state adversaries, be they at the global level (Russia, China) or regional (North Korea, Iran) will likely interpret the move as yet another measure of American indecisiveness and unreliability," emails Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
The NBA’s swift apology to Chinese fans for a single tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors is part of a troubling trend: the Communist Party in Beijing is setting boundaries for what Americans more than 7,000 miles away are willing to say on sensitive issues, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.
What's happening: An image that Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey tweeted — then quickly deleted — which backed Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests kicked off a firestorm in China.
The big picture: "When it has to do with market access in China and profits [U.S. companies] will bend over backwards to apologize," says Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The bottom line: This isn't a covert operation. China is leveraging access to its 1.5 billion consumers to influence American companies and organizations in broad daylight.
Morell testifies on Benghazi in 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director and host of Intelligence Matters, gave me 4 reasons why U.S. national security could be hampered by the swirling Trump-Ukraine scandal in an interview on Friday.
1. Senior officials will devote less time and attention to foreign policy and national security challenges as the impeachment process heats up.
"This consumes you. Believe me, I've been there with Benghazi."
2. Partners overseas will wonder if they can be candid with senior U.S. officials, or whether those conversations will leak.
"We went through phases of concern after Wikileaks and after [Edward] Snowden. ... It's not helpful for working with partners on key issues."
3. "Boy does it look like our foreign policy is for sale," Morell says. "Sending that message is just bad in general, but then people could act on it."
"The biggest sin to me is that the president of the United States was willing to put [Ukraine's] security at risk," along with U.S. policy objectives, "for a domestic political ask. That's horrible."
4. "My biggest worry is that policymakers below the president will start to worry about the intelligence officer sitting across from them," he says, noting that those working relationships had held up even under Trump.
Looks like a rowdy synod. Photo: Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
Pope Francis opened a gathering of bishops in Rome Sunday by urging conservatives to be open to change.
Why it matters: One potential change would be momentous — the unwinding of a 1,000-year-old ban on married priests.
By the numbers: In parts of the Amazon, there are as many as 8,000 Catholics for every priest (the global ratio is much lower, but rising). Mass is celebrated weekly in less than 15% of villages, per Reuters, and some remote parishes go months without a visit from a priest.
Zoom out: Francis is also drawing attention this week to environmental degradation in the Amazon. Wildfires there have engulfed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in global outrage and also drew hundreds of thousands of Bolivians into the streets over the weekend.
St. Martin after Irma. Photo: Helene Valenzuela/AFP/Getty Images
It's been two years since Hurricane Irma devastated much of Saint Martin, an island on which the population of 73,000 is split between French and Dutch halves.
The big picture: The French half has recovered more slowly, but not for lack of funding — France has provided $500 million. "Amid the threat of evermore powerful storms," the NYT's Kirk Semple reports, bureaucrats are struggling to decide where, how and even whether to rebuild.
Why it matters: "In a region that has experienced the awesome forces of Category 5 storms with terrifying frequency in recent years, the story playing out on St. Martin is likely to be repeated on many other Caribbean islands — and in the United States, too."
Drying chili peppers in the sun in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Yuan Huanhuan/VCG via Getty Images.
“I have a talent. When I look at you, my other eye droops. Do you see? The other eye is smaller. It goes where it wants.”— Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, revealing that he has a neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis.