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Airstrike Against Turkish Troops Could Reshape the Syrian War

At least 33 troops died in an attack on a Turkish military post in Idlib—a major escalation in a conflict involving Ankara, Damascus, and Moscow.

By , an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter stands in the town of Saraqib in Idlib province, Syria, on Feb. 27.
A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter stands in the town of Saraqib in Idlib province, Syria, on Feb. 27. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Dozens of Turkish soldiers are killed by an airstrike in northwest Syria, the World Health Organization warns all countries to brace for a coronavirus outbreak—without calling it a pandemic, and Canada’s government is meeting with indigenous leaders over a railway blockade.

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Syrian Airstrike Marks a Major Escalation

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib province—the highest death toll in a single day for Turkish troops this month since thousands were deployed in northwestern Syria to slow a Russia-backed Syrian offensive against the country’s last rebel holdout.

Turkey responded by killing 16 Syrian soldiers on the battlefield in Idlib on Friday while Turkish drone and artillery strikes hit Syrian army positions throughout Idlib province. The escalation could dramatically alter the Syrian conflict, which in its final stages has turned into a confrontation between Ankara, Damascus, and Moscow.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for an end to the Syrian government offensive. He held an emergency meeting with top military and intelligence officials late on Thursday, and Turkey repeated its demands for support from its NATO allies. Turkish officials maintain that Syrian government forces conducted the airstrike, though it is Russian jets that have recently been active in the area. The strike hit a military observation post just south of Idlib city.

Refugee crisis. After the attack, a Turkish official announced that Turkey would no longer prevent migrants from reaching Europe—part of a deal agreed in 2016 in exchange for financial support. The move is expected to put pressure on European leaders and NATO allies to aid Ankara. Turkey, which already hosts around 3.7 million Syrians, fears an influx of refugees fleeing the government offensive in Idlib. The violence has displaced more than 900,000 civilians—mostly women and children.

Will anyone intervene? The international community has so far looked the other way. The United Nations won’t intervene because Russia and China have vetoed new routes for U.N. aid. But European powers and the United States could help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Indeed, Idlib is precisely the sort of situation that warrants joint European Union-NATO humanitarian intervention, Sinan Ulgen argues in FP.

What We’re Following Today

WHO tells countries to prepare for coronavirus. On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that all countries need to be prepared for a coronavirus outbreak, as cases rise in Europe and the Middle East. New cases around the world have now overtaken those in mainland China. “No country should assume it won’t get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. Global markets fell further on Thursday in reaction to the news, with Wall Street on track for its biggest weekly drop since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Economists are forecasting a global recession.

In the United States, California is monitoring more than 8,400 people for possible coronavirus symptoms, but it lacks the diagnostic test kits to confirm that many cases. California is the first state to confirm a case of unknown origin—meaning the virus could be spreading within U.S. communities. But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, put in charge of the coronavirus response, sought to reassure the public on Thursday, saying that the threat to Americans “remains low.”

Canada holds talks with indigenous protesters. Canadian government representatives are in the midst of two-day talks with an indigenous group in an attempt to end three weeks of railway blockades in protest of the construction a gas pipeline that would run through the Wet’suwet’en nation. Activists across the country have disrupted traffic in solidarity with the group, which has threatened to damage the economy. The talks come after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police withdrew from We’suwet’en territory.

Greta Thunberg speaks at rally in Britain. The teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg will address a student protest in the British city of Bristol today, with police issuing a safety warning because of the size of the protest. Between 15,000 and 60,000 people are expected to attend. The students, who are expected to come from across the country, are demanding decisive action from the government. The rally comes about a month after Britain left the European Union, potentially threatening joint efforts to combat climate change.

Keep an Eye On

Bernie’s foreign-policy advisor. Sen. Bernie Sanders is seeking to reinvent progressive foreign policy. He’s backed up by advisor Matt Duss, who has courted the online spotlight and used controversy—like Sanders’s comments on Cuba this week—to point out hypocrisy among the foreign-policy establishment, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports—part of a series on the Democratic candidates’ foreign-policy experts.

Read our coverage of foreign policy in the 2020 U.S. election here.

Slovakia’s elections. Slovakia’s parliamentary elections on Saturday present voters with the choice between the populists who have ruled the country for most of the last 14 years and a revived liberal democratic bloc. A historic murder trial, in which an oligarch is accused of ordering a hit on an investigative journalist, could push the coalition of liberal democrats over the finish line, Tim Gosling writes in FP.

Thailand’s student protests. Students in Thailand are protesting against Prime Minister Payuth Chan-ocha after the country’s Constitutional Court disbanded a pro-democracy party last week. Chan-ocha took over by military coup in 2014 and became an elected leader in a disputed vote last year. Analysts say the criticism could weaken the prime minister, Bloomberg reports.

Odds and Ends

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied a long-running conspiracy theory: that he uses a body double for security purposes. The question was raised by a journalist with a Russian news agency—“Are you real?” he asked. Putin said the idea had been proposed in the early 2000s, during Russia’s conflict with separatists in Chechnya, but he rejected it.

Can pets get coronavirus? A Hong Kong coronavirus patient’s pet dog has tested a “weak positive” for the disease. Authorities said the dog has no symptoms and may not actually be infected. There is not yet “evidence that pet animals can be infected with COVID-19 virus or can be a source of infection to people,” Hong Kong officials said in a press release. The dog is now quarantined alone in an animal shelter.

That’s it for today.

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