Morning Brief

Erdogan and Putin Meet Over Syria

The Syrian government offensive in Idlib has raised the stakes for Turkey and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a joint press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 8, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a joint press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 8, 2019. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Erdogan and Putin try to resolve their differences over Syria at a Moscow meeting, Italy imposes emergency measures to contain its coronavirus outbreak, and political deadlock looks likely once again in Israel.

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Erdogan, Putin Seek Syria Solution

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are meeting today in Moscow in an attempt to resolve differences over the conflict in Syria—this time, with very high stakes. Tensions have risen between Turkey, which backs some rebel groups, and Russia, which backs the Syrian regime. The leaders haven’t met face-to-face since Syrian forces launched an offensive in rebel-held Idlib, drawing in thousands of Turkish troops and displacing nearly 1 million people who Erdogan fears could end up crossing the border into Turkey.

Last week, an airstrike killed 36 Turkish soldiers at an outpost in Idlib, leading Turkey to retaliate against Syrian military targets—though it chose not to blame Russia for the attack. In Moscow, the two leaders have conflicting objectives. Erdogan will push for Putin to agree to a plan for a safe zone along the Turkish border in Idlib to resettle millions of refugees. Putin, meanwhile, has insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces regain all lost territory.

Posturing. The tensions have increased the risk of direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey, and Erdogan will also push for a cease-fire. Meanwhile, he continues to announce that vast numbers of migrants are heading to the Greek border—numbers that appear inflated. Ahead of the Moscow talks, Russia sent reinforcements to its troops in Syria by air and by sea, with warships passing through the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul.

Europe on the sidelines. Amid the offensive in Idlib, Turkey announced it would allow refugees to cross into the European Union—an effort to force Europe to come to Turkey’s aid that created a crisis at its borders, as Tessa Fox has reported for Foreign Policy. The border crisis has alarmed EU leaders, who will be watching the Erdogan-Putin meeting closely. But Turkey’s move has given the West another opportunity to take action in Idlib itself, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad argues in FP.

The EU’s moral and political failure. Instead, the EU is using force against migrants at the Greek border and attempting to push back dinghies at sea. But today’s crisis was entirely foreseeable and European leaders have not done much to prevent it since signing an agreement with Turkey in 2016 to keep Syrian refugees there. “In the years since the deal’s signing, the EU has failed completely to devise a common migration policy for the bloc to manage the expected long-term uptick in migration—or even emergency plans should there be a sudden influx of refugees of the sort we’re seeing now,” Paul Hockenos argues in FP.

What We’re Following Today

Italy imposes harsh restrictions to contain virus. Italy has introduced emergency measures to try to contain the coronavirus, ordering all schools and universities shut nationwide from today through at least March 15. The number of confirmed cases in the country rose to 3,089 on Wednesday, and 107 people have died—the worst outbreak in Europe so far. The new strategy also calls for cinemas and theaters to close. It comes just ahead of an emergency meeting between EU health ministers on Friday. An EU Council staff member was confirmed to have the virus on Wednesday.

Will Netanyahu form a government? Israel appears headed for political deadlock yet again after near-final results showed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and his usual allies had failed to win a clear majority in Monday’s elections. Netanyahu’s coalition is likely to have 58 seats in parliament—three short of the 61 needed to form a government. His rival Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party, also fell short of a solid coalition—meaning that a stalemate looks likely, after the third inconclusive election in under a year. If that is the case, yet another snap election will be called. Netanyahu, who faces a corruption trial on March 17, has so far refused to step aside.

First round of EU-U.K. negotiations concludes. The first round of talks between the European Union and Britain on their post-Brexit trade relationship finish today, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier holding a press conference. Rhetoric between the two sides was tense ahead of the negotiations, with some EU diplomats concerned that the political relationship could get in the way of technical decision making. Both sides are aiming for zero tariffs but they disagree over the conditions. They need to reach a deal by the end of the year.

Keep an Eye On

A French ruling on Uber. France’s top appeals court decided on Wednesday that a former rideshare driver for Uber should be recognized as an employee rather than a contractor. The ruling appears to be the first from a top court to directly contradict Uber’s insistence that its drivers aren’t company employees, limiting their benefits. The company faces similar cases in the United States and Britain.

U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban. The Pentagon announced its first airstrike against the Taliban since the United States struck a deal with the militant group on Wednesday. The move comes as internal divisions and disagreements between the Afghan government and the Taliban threaten to derail the agreement—leaving the country holding its breath, Stefanie Glinski reports for FP.

A State Department appointment. A Trump loyalist has been appointed to a senior position at the State Department, overseeing U.S. relations with the United Nations and the World Health Organization among other international organizations. Sean Doocey’s appointment—not yet announced—is likely to deal a blow to the morale of State Department veterans, FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report.

Odds and Ends

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent an impersonator to greet a crowd gathered outside his residence in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. Mimicking the president’s recognizable accent, the comedian spoke to the crowd, played the trumpet, and threw bananas—creating a surreal scene. Bolsonaro later emerged, dodging media questions about Brazil’s slowing economy by directing them to the impersonator.

That’s it for today. 

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

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