Oct 8, 2019

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. This is our lucky 156th edition and it's jam-packed. 1,636 words, 6 minutes, 1 global trek.

  • Thanks for joining me! Please tell your family, friends and dentists to sign up, and I'd love your tips and feedback: lawler@axios.com.
1 big thing: Trump moves out of Erdoğan's way in Syria
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Data: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit as of Oct. 7; Map: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

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.

  • Turkey fiercely opposes the primarily Kurdish forces that hold the area and helped the U.S. retake swathes of Syria from ISIS, leading to bipartisan accusations that Trump is abandoning an ally.
  • The backlash included Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
  • There was an information vacuum for much of the day beyond the tweets in which Trump reiterated his desire to leave Syria, claimed the Kurds had been "paid massive amounts" to fight ISIS and warned he would "destroy and obliterate" Turkey's economy if it did anything he found "off limits."

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.

  • The official said Trump had determined Erdoğan was “set on undertaking an operation in northern Syria” after months of threats and said Trump didn’t want U.S. troops in the path of a NATO ally.
  • The official said repeatedly that Trump was not endorsing Erdoğan’s plan, but wouldn’t say whether he’d warned him not to move ahead. 

Kurdish forces are guarding camps that hold thousands of suspected ISIS fighters and have warned they may have to abandon them to counter Turkey.

  • The White House says Turkey would then be "responsible for maintaining the captivity of those fighters" and would bear "full responsibility" if ISIS rebounds in the area.

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 most serious risks for them extend beyond war to potential ethnic cleansing.

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.”

  • “The president has been transparent in his desire to get out of the region, which immediately changes everybody's calculus," Cafarella says. "Most of our adversaries are currently running down the clock expecting that at some point we will leave.”
  • Trump, for his part, says that was always the plan. He tweeted that the U.S. would only fight "WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT" and that if ISIS returns, "we can always go back & BLAST!"
2. Viewpoints on Trump's Syria move

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.

  • But even if the cost is relatively small, Cafarella says, "managing all of these simultaneous problems has required a lot of attention, a lot of contingency planning, negotiations and renegotiations."
  • "So it doesn’t surprise me that the president is sick of dealing with the problem."

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.

Go deeper: Syria decision exposes Trump to political peril

3. Chinese influence: The Rockets' offense

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.

  • Both Morey and the NBA have apologized for offending Chinese fans, but the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association and multiple Chinese businesses have severed ties with the Rockets, reports Axios' Kendall Baker.
  • Hanging in the balance is an NBA-Tencent streaming deal worth billions, the support of millions of Chinese fans, and Morey's job.

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 three big U.S. airlines, Marriott and the Gap all recently offered apologies to Beijing after failing to make clear that territories like Taiwan or Tibet are part of China.
  • China, which is Hollywood's biggest international market, has also pushed American studios to alter content in order to get into Chinese theaters.
  • Between the lines: Many U.S. companies are growing more political at home. But when it comes to China — in particular to Hong Kong or to mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang — they’re silent.

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.

4. The national security costs of impeachment

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.

  • As for Trump himself, Morell says: "I think it reinforces his view that there really is a deep state and the intelligence community is part of it."
5. Pope Francis considers the Amazon, and married priests

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.

  • "One of the most contentious topics of the synod, whose some 260 participants are mostly bishops from the Amazon, is whether to allow older married 'proven men' with families and a strong standing in local communities to be ordained as priests in the Amazon," per Reuters.
  • The debate "pits those who say ordaining married men could relieve the church’s clergy shortage against those who warn that doing so would undermine the distinctive character of the priesthood," WSJ notes.

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.

6. What I'm reading: In the path of the coming storms

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.

  • "This has made the debate less an economic one and more about politics, class, culture and race, often pitting the local majority-black population against the French state," he writes.
  • Residents from working-class (and flood-prone) neighborhoods like Sandy Ground — "bracketed by a bay on one side and a lagoon on the other ... first settled by squatters decades ago, many of them black immigrants from other Caribbean islands" — worry they could be forced to move out.

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."

Read the piece.

7. Stories we're watching

Drying chili peppers in the sun in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Yuan Huanhuan/VCG via Getty Images.

  1. Hong Kong protests: Thousands demonstrate against face mask ban
  2. North Korea calls U.S. position in nuclear talks "sickening"
  3. At least 104 Iraqis killed, 6,000 injured in week of unrest
  4. Trump orders stepped-up military operations in Afghanistan
  5. China trade talks will take place in D.C. this week
  6. Economists expect lower growth due to trade war
  7. Trump orders National Security staff cut


“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.
Dave Lawler