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1 big thing: Trump's step back from border turns into sprint from Syria

Fleeing from Ras al-Ain, Syria, on the border with Turkey. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump stepped aside and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan marched forward. Over the ensuing week, a delicate balance in Syria has collapsed.

Why it matters: Alliances have been hastily redrawn, civilians have fled in panic, and the U.S. has announced a near-total withdrawal. In the balance are an increasingly fragile victory over ISIS, what's left of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, and the future of Syria and its Kurdish inhabitants.

Catch up quick...

  • Turkey has advanced farther and more rapidly than the U.S. anticipated. Militias it supports have allegedly executed Kurdish civilians and, according to Foreign Policy, freed ISIS captives.
  • Abandoned by their U.S. allies, Kurdish forces struck a deal with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his patron, Russia. Today, Syrian forces began flooding into Kurdish-held territory.
  • President Trump today announced that nearly all U.S. troops in Syria will be moved elsewhere in the region. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had said they risked being trapped between advancing armies.

The big picture: “Trump’s acquiescence to Turkey’s move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week’s time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year-long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State,” the NYT’s David Sanger writes.

Behind the scenes: This was all born from a bluff, Axios' Jonathan Swan explained today on the Pro Rata podcast.

  • Dating back to 2017, Swan reports, "Trump had been telling Erdogan: 'You wanna go in there? Ok, it’s all yours. You take care of ISIS, you take care of the whole thing. You own all of it.'"
  • "Trump just kept running the same play again and again ... and this time Erdogan was like, 'fine, that's exactly what we'll do.'"
  • “Part of the problem is, Trump really doesn't care about the Kurds. In his mind, he can put a big tick next to clearing out the ISIS caliphate and he just wants to get U.S. troops out, full stop."
  • However, Swan reports, “He is starting to realize that the result of that phone call is a disaster on the ground.”

The latest: In a statement this evening, Trump said the U.S. forces leaving Syria will remain in the region to guard against an ISIS resurgence.

  • He also announced a suspension of trade talks with Turkey, a hike in steel tariffs to 50%, and potential "powerful additional sanctions" against those guilty of "serious human rights abuses."

What to watch: Turkey wants to force Kurdish forces from its borders and resettle Syrian refugees in the new buffer zone. Assad wants to regain control over all of Syria. The Kurds want protection from Turkey and, if possible, a degree of autonomy.

  • Russia, meanwhile, has relationships with all the key players and a military presence in Syria, says Rob Malley, CEO of International Crisis Group and a former Obama administration official.
  • “This is now being played out in the worst possible circumstances. It appears to be a free-for-all, and it’s hard to see a party other than Russia at this point who could orchestrate a settlement."
2. Asia: Xi's Himalayan red carpet

Nice to Xi you (arrival in Kathmandu). Photo: Xinhua/Gao Jie via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Nepal over the weekend bearing gifts: a pledge of $500 million in economic aid for the impoverished Himalayan country and a series of infrastructure deals worth billions more.

Why it matters: Phanindra Dahal of BBC Nepali, and a former Axios fellow, emails from Kathmandu that Xi's visit was "massive news" in a country at the center of a tug of war between India and China:

  • "The president, prime minister and all members of the Cabinet went to the airport to receive and see off President Xi. The ruling party even organized a discussion on 'Xi Jinping Thought' ahead of the visit."
  • "'Nepal and China are brothers,' the Chinese president said. India used to say things like that and Nepalis would see it as an unwelcome reference to Indian domination."
  • "But Nepal is trying hard to end its sole dependence on India, and Xi said he would help the landlocked country become landlinked — with plans for roads, railways and tunnels."
  • "The U.S. also sees Nepal as strategically important and is worried about China's growing influence. India and Western powers will be watching closely to see how the Chinese deals are implemented."

In other news: While in Nepal, Xi issued a warning over Hong Kong:

"Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones."

Go deeper: Nepal has a front-row seat to the great power competition in Asia

3. Europe: Outrage in Catalonia over verdict

The scene tonight in Barcelona. Photo: Clara Margais/Getty Images

Spain’s supreme court today sentenced 9 Catalan politicians to between 9 and 13 years for their roles in an unauthorized 2017 independence referendum.

  • Protestors outraged by the severe sentences for sedition and misuse of public funds filled the streets in cities across the semi-autonomous region and flooded into Barcelona’s airport, causing more than 100 flight cancellations.

Zoom out: The trial of 12 separatist leaders, 3 of whom were convicted today of lesser charges, captivated Spain. The verdict comes ahead of a general election next month — the 4th in 4 years.

What’s next: Asked where the independence movement goes from here, Catalonia’s secretary for foreign affairs, Mireia Borrell Porta, says the Catalan government continues to push for dialogue with Madrid, but “right now there’s no one at the other side of the table.”

  • Pedro Sánchez, the center-left prime minister, has been “unable and unwilling to solve this issue," she says. He's distanced himself from the separatists since they helped him gain power.
  • “I think the verdict has shown that Spain is really not a well-functioning democracy,” she argues.

Asked why a clear "violation of fundamental rights,” in her words, hasn’t generated backlash from countries across Europe, she says:

“The European Union is a club of states and this is realpolitik. There’s been a lot of pressure from the Spanish government for leaders of other countries to treat this as an internal issue.”
4. Global elections roundup

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice political party. Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images.

1. Poland's euroskeptic Law and Justice party (PiS) ran away with Sunday’s parliamentary election, securing a narrow majority in the lower house with 44% of the vote.

  • The parliamentary elections were described as the most important since the country regained independence in 1989. They unfolded against an ongoing dispute between Warsaw and the EU over the rule of law,” Michal Baranowski of the German Marshall Fund writes for Axios Expert Voices.
  • “The PiS has presided over fast economic growth, the delivery of generous social programs, and a more conservative course on many social issues. ... But after an often controversial 4-year term, the party has now received a sign of popular approval.”

2. Hungary’s opposition won a shocking victory in the Budapest mayoral race on Sunday, despite major institutional advantages for Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party.

  • The opposition hopes “Budapest can become to Hungary what Istanbul and Warsaw are for Turkey and Poland: a metropolitan stronghold of progressive politics in a country led by socially conservative strongmen,” per the FT.

3. A conservative law professor, Kais Saied, won a runoff for Tunisia’s presidency on Sunday with 72% of the vote.

  • His opponent, media mogul Nabil Karoui, campaigned from prison. That added an element of controversy to what was a benchmark election for the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.
  • Election observers said the vote proceeded smoothly.
5. What I'm reading I: Suspicion among the spires

Photo: Getty

If you've stepped foot in Oxford, you've certainly seen and have likely toured Christ Church College.

The big picture: It's the best known of the 38 constituent colleges that make up Oxford University, alma mater to 13 prime ministers and home to the Great Hall from the Harry Potter films. It has an endowment of nearly $700 million with an enrollment of around 600 students. And, the FT reports, it’s “being torn apart by an extraordinary HR dispute.”

  • Christ Church houses both a college and a major Church of England cathedral. Its dean is the Very Rev. Martyn Percy, who felt he was being underpaid and undervalued in a world of academic stars, prompting a bitter legal dispute.

Why it matters: “Oxford, like Cambridge, prides itself on being a federation of self-governing colleges, where academics, not bureaucrats, are in charge. The model seems to be thriving: for the past four years, Oxford has been judged the best university in the world by Times Higher Education.”

  • “Yet the Christ Church saga has exposed how parts of Oxford remain trapped by their medieval origins. It has also thrown into relief the uneasy role of the Church in modern Britain. In an increasingly secular and multifaith society, the Church provides a dwindling talent pool for leadership roles.”
  • “There is one mechanism that could put an end to the feud — calling for the intervention of Christ Church’s ultimate authority: the Visitor. But, in another unfortunate piece of heritage, the Visitor is the Queen, whom nobody wants to involve.”

Dig in

6. What I'm reading II: Bear with me...

Paper and ink in Athens. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/picture alliance via Getty

I've had a few questions about what I read to pull together this newsletter and to otherwise stay up to speed. My answer is long, if not particularly exciting.

  • I open the Times, Journal and Wash Post apps directly to their World sections each morning.
  • I read the FT throughout the week and the Economist on the weekends (lately I've been enjoying the audio version).
  • I work my way through Foreign Affairs, check in with Foreign Policy and read any global pieces from the New Yorker.
  • I scan Reuters and the BBC for breaking news, and spend more time than I'd like trawling Twitter (my launch point to reporting from other outlets).
  • I get my Brexit fix from the British papers, and I try to read local media from countries I'm covering (though not as often as I should).
  • I subscribe to a handful of newsletters and listen to a few podcasts (always game for recommendations, given or taken). I also read quite a bit of Axios.

Spending the day learning about what's happening around the world is one of the genuine joys of this job. But with foreign and domestic news colliding messily lately and impeachment on the horizon, I've retreated back into something both nostalgic and, by necessity, entirely of the moment.

  • This was written with my laptop perched on the FT Weekend, the Times and yesterday's Post.
  • After years of reading almost exclusively online, I had forgotten how much was packed in a good newspaper — and how satisfying reading print could be.
7. Stories we're watching

A member of the Solomon Islands Cultural Group practices before traveling to Australia for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

  1. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize
  2. What matters most in the Trump-Ukraine scandal
  3. Japan's Typhoon Hagibis triggers deadly floods and landslides
  4. Tech firms must choose China or Hong Kong
  5. Ecuador’s president backs down amid deadly protests
  6. Investors signal they hate Trump's "Phase 1" China trade deal
  7. Trump confidant lobbying to free Paul Whelan from Russia

Quoted:

“Right now, I am in the center of world media. I really wanted to be world famous, but not because of such a situation.”
— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky