Fallout from the Syria withdrawal. Nothing that happens in Syria happens in isolation. Washington’s decision to remove its troops will be felt throughout the region, perhaps nowhere more so than in Israel. Washington’s help in the fight against Iran is an important component of U.S.-Israel relations, one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would rather not lose. To that end, he spoke to President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who he said confirmed that the U.S. will continue to influence the outcome in Syria and aid Israel through other means. It’s unclear exactly how the U.S. will do so, but it is clear that Israel is already trying to figure out how much risk the U.S. may have put it in – Israeli fighter jets have already been spotted in Lebanese airspace near the Syrian border.

Others are anticipating changes as well. The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S. but dominated by the Kurds, warned that the withdrawal will lead to a jihadist revival. A leading Kurdish politician hinted that they may need to reconsider their alliances. The French government said the fight against terrorism was, in fact, not over and that its troops would remain in Syria accordingly. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that the U.S. has the potential to usher in a political settlement in Syria but remained skeptical until seeing more action.

2018, according to Putin. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual press conference in which he reflects on the year that was and discusses what’s to come in the year ahead. The goal of all his policies, he said, is for Russia to develop into a country that can take its rightful place alongside the strongest powers in the world. He addressed the need for more equitable resource distribution and poverty reduction, and he alluded to technological developments that will ease Russia’s dependence on energy exports. Putin defended his controversial pension reforms, calling them inevitable as retirees begin to outnumber workers. As for foreign policy, he expressed concern over U.S. missile defense in Japan and described ties with the U.K. as a “dead end.” He added that the international system for arms control is falling apart. Ordinarily, we’re not in the business of reprinting Putin speeches in full, and even if we were, we’d note that the pomp surrounding these kinds of statements is meant primarily for voters to gawk at. But it provides a glimpse into what the leader of Russia believes are his priorities, and how he intends to sell them to his people.

Breaking the impasse in North Korea talks. A major sticking point between Washington and Pyongyang has been agreeing on what denuclearization would actually entail and, just as important, when economic relief would kick in. And North Korea could certainly use the relief. Its economy will crumble “sooner than expected” as its foreign reserves deplete, according to a report from South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. A recent report from North Korea’s central news agency, then, could be seen as a message to the United States. The report acknowledged that denuclearization “means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea,” including surrounding areas. This is North Korea’s way of saying it understands Washington’s demands but expects in return the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons that can reach North Korea. Under these terms, denuclearization is impossible. Still, the U.S. envoy to North Korea said Washington is amenable to discussing travel policies for U.S. workers who want to deliver humanitarian aid. South Korea, meanwhile, said it wants to scale down the size and scope of joint military drills with the U.S. next year. Washington may or may not agree to the terms, and its decision could be the most important indicator of how future talks will go.

Honorable Mentions

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Turkey will continue to support Iran against U.S. sanctions.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is meeting with Catalonia’s separatist leaders in Barcelona today ahead of protests planned for Dec. 21.
  • Trade talks between China and Canada have stopped, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • Anti-China sentiment is growing in Kyrgyzstan over the suspected inclusion of Kyrgyz people in China’s re-education camps. A former Kyrgyz security official said such sentiment is destabilizing.
  • Unconfirmed reports indicate a U.S. embassy official met with the leader of Tunisia’s “red vests” movement.