Morning Brief

Crisis Grows in Northwest Syria

Turkey launches attacks in Idlib province in attempt to slow the government offensive against the country’s last rebel stronghold.

Syrian government forces deploy near the Damascus-Aleppo highway in Syria's Aleppo province on Feb. 10.
Syrian government forces deploy near the Damascus-Aleppo highway in Syria's Aleppo province on Feb. 10. AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Tensions rise between Turkey and Syria as Ankara launches attacks in Idlib, NATO defense ministers convene in Brussels, and Sudan’s government could hand over its ousted president to the ICC.

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Turkey Strikes Back in Syria

Turkey said at least 51 Syrian government soldiers were killed in northwestern Idlib province on Tuesday, after rebel fighters and Turkish forces launched an attack in retaliation after five Turkish troops were killed on Monday—a major escalation between Ankara and Damascus. On Tuesday, fighting continued along the M5 highway—seized by the government for the first time since 2012—that runs from Aleppo to Damascus.

Turkey has sent thousands of soldiers across the border in recent days as government troops advance in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel holdout. Already hosting around 3.6 million Syrians, Turkey fears another influx of refugees across the border, something that seems increasingly likely as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government keeps up its campaign.

Thousands fleeing. The Syrian campaign is fueling the biggest humanitarian crisis of the nine-year civil war: More people have fled since Dec. 1, 2019, than at any other point, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced, including 100,000 in the last week, Elizabeth Tsurkov reports for FP. “The fate of Idlib’s 3 million to 4 million residents now depends on Turkey’s ability to deter further regime advances,” she writes.

Russia’s role. At this crucial stage in the conflict, tensions between Russia—which backs Assad’s forces—and Turkey—which backs some rebel groups—remain high. Moscow has called for attacks against Russian and Syrian forces to stop. Despite being on opposite sides, the two countries have worked toward a political solution together, but representatives from Russia and Turkey held talks in Ankara that ended without an agreement on Monday.

What We’re Following Today

NATO holds ministerial meeting. Brussels hosts a summit of NATO defense ministers today, with the deployment of troops in Iraq and the broader Middle East at the center of the talks. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will ask NATO allies for more forces to help combat the Islamic State in Iraq and to bolster U.S. efforts in the region, where tensions are running high in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani last month. Esper is expected to face questions over nuclear arms control, particularly as the New START treaty between the United States and Russia is set to expire next year.

Sudan could hand ex-president to ICC. Sudan’s government has suggested that it would hand over Sudanese suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court, including former President Omar al-Bashir—who was ousted last April and remains in jail in Khartoum. Bashir is wanted on charges of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The decision came on Tuesday amid an agreement between the government and rebel groups in the region, and the timeline for the handover depends on the final peace deal between the government and the rebels. A lawyer for Bashir said the ex-leader will not cooperate with the ICC.

Experts see an end in sight to coronavirus. China’s senior medical advisor, Zhong Nanshan, said Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak could end in April, as the country recorded the lowest number of new cases since Jan. 31. Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the virus is “public enemy number one,” with China recording more than 1,100 deaths. Global markets surged after Zhong’s comments, but the coronavirus has already wreaked havoc on China’s domestic economy, which is expected to slow in the first quarter. Several international airlines have suspended flights to China through April.

Keep an Eye On

A portion of the 1979 Drobles Plan map. Foreign Policy illustration/Drobles Plan

A portion of the 1979 Drobles Plan map. Foreign Policy illustration/Drobles Plan

Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas accused the U.S. government of making “Swiss cheese” of the land Palestinians claim for a state and seeking “to put an end to the question of Palestine.” But the Trump administration succeeded in heading off a U.N. Security Council vote that could have led to condemnation of the plan and an eventual U.S. veto.

Although Trump and his advisors like to present their peace plan as original and untraditional, it is actually as traditional as it gets, Yehuda Shaul writes in Foreign Policy. The Trump plan has effectively plagiarized the map and the strategic thinking at the center of an old Israeli proposal from 1979. The only difference between today’s proposal and the one four decades ago is that the author of the 1979 plan “was honest enough to admit what he was doing,” argues Shaul. “He was explicit that what his map described was not a Palestinian state but the means to prevent one.”

The Scottish National Party. After Britain left the European Union on Jan. 31, the main policy goal of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is holding another independence referendum. But the SNP has some personal reasons to get another vote as soon as possible. Despite leader Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity, the party faces scandal: A former leader is standing trial for sex offenses and its governance has come under fire, Azeem Ibrahim writes for FP.

Spain’s euthanasia bill. Spain’s parliament voted on Tuesday to bring a bill that would allow euthanasia and assisted suicide under certain circumstances to the floor for debate. Previous attempts to change a law that criminalizes assisted suicide failed, but the situation could be different under the new left-wing government. Euthanasia is currently allowed in certain cases in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Deforestation in the Amazon. New research based on a decade-long study in the Amazon basin shows that up to 20 percent of the rainforest is emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. The main cause is deforestation: While living trees take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, dead trees release it. The findings suggest that the Amazon rainforest is becoming a source of carbon dioxide faster than previously understood.

Odds and Ends

The city council of Prague is planning to rename a square in front of the capital’s Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician murdered near the Kremlin in 2015. The ceremony would take place later this month and follows similar moves in Washington, Kyiv, and Vilnius. The symbolic name change could increase tensions between Prague and its Russian embassy.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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