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The humanitarian crisis inside Syria has reached a “horrifying new level” as nearly a million civilians have been forced to flee bombing raids and ground assaults by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, a United Nations official said.
Syria has been the scene of a brutal civil war since 2011, when opposition forces attempted to overthrow Assad. With the aid of devastating Russian bombing campaigns, the Syrian army has reclaimed nearly all territory once held by the opposition. The last rebel-held areas are in Idlib province in northwestern Syria.
Over the course of the war, refugees from across the country have been bussed to Idlib as Assad’s forces took back control of more territory. The Syrian army launched an offensive into Idlib in December with the goal of stamping out the last remnants of opposition and ending the war. The army’s advance — bolstered by bombing raids on civilian targets and hospitals — has forced hundreds of thousands to retreat.
More than 900,000 people, 60 percent of them children, have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Refugee camps along the Turkish border have been overwhelmed. Many people have been forced to sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures. There have been several reports of children freezing to death.
As dire as the situation is now, humanitarian groups warn that it could become much more severe if the Syrian army continues its advance. The offensive could push millions more people in Idlib from their homes. On Thursday, at least 22 Turkish soldiers inside Syria were killed in an airstrike, sparking fears that tensions could escalate into war, with millions of civilians in the line of fire. Idlib could become “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century,” the U.N. official said.
Why there’s debate
Aid organizations have called for the international community to step in to help resolve the situation and prevent it from escalating. Military intervention appears unlikely, but experts hope that diplomatic pressure from the U.S. or major European nations could help. The best place to aim that pressure, they believe, is on Turkey and Russia. The two countries agreed to create a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib in 2018, but the deal broke apart after less than a year. There are hopes that the escalating situation along with international pressure could compel Russia and Turkey to establish a more enduring safe zone.
The current humanitarian crisis requires a focused effort from international aid agencies, but that can happen only if aid workers are allowed to enter and stay in Syria safely, experts say. Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees since the start of the war and has refused to allow any more. Refugee resettlement could be part of a deal that helps Turkey avoid a full military conflict against Syria and Russia.
The deaths of Turkish soldiers inside Syria appear to have brought diplomatic discussions between the countries to an abrupt halt and prompted retaliation by Turkey’s military. In response, Turkey may suspend its efforts to block Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, a government official said.
Major Western nations should play a part in peace negotiations
“Russia and Turkey have cut deals before in Syria, and they are talking now, though without any results so far. Nudging them toward an agreement is where American, European and United Nations efforts should be focused.” — Editorial, New York Times
A safe zone must be established
“A safe zone is not a long-term fix. But it will forestall a severe and immediate crisis.” — Robert S. Ford, Foreign Affairs
Turkey should be pressured to accept more refugees
“Given the unfolding humanitarian crisis and tough winter conditions, Turkey’s strong resistance to accept new people will come with moral and political costs — further contributing to Ankara’s worsening international image.” — Galip Dalay, Lawfare
Western countries must recognize the anti-terror implications of allowing Idlib to fall into chaos
“Even beyond humanitarian concerns, there’s a security context that should motivate Trump’s action. Because Idlib’s annihilation will send legions of new recruits into the hands of the Islamic State.” — Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner
European countries may have to make concessions to Assad to save the lives of refugees
“Both Turkey and Russia are using Syrian migrants as political and economic leverage against Europe. The Putin administration aims to force EU countries to recognise the Assad regime and to extend economic aid for reconstruction in return for halting refugee flows.” — Umut Korkut and Tarik Basbugoglu, the Conversation
A global humanitarian effort is needed
“There is a desperate need for more support from the international community. For more money to be sent for the humanitarian effort and for all parties who have the capability to do anything to stop the bloodshed to actually take those actions. But the sad reality is when it comes to Syria, everyone has failed.” — Arwa Damon, CNN
The U.S. should assert its influence
“This is a moment when the United States — if its diplomacy were functional — should be pressing its supposed NATO ally Turkey, and Russia, to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib.” — Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer
Sanctions on Russian officials could push Putin to the bargaining table
“The U.S. and several other countries have passed the Global Magnitsky Act and laws similar to it, which are intended to penalize state officials responsible for human rights abuses. These laws should be applied to the commanders overseeing Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. This will serve to push back against the erosion of human rights norms we have witnessed over the past decade and spotlight Russia’s central role as a perpetrator of atrocities in Syria.” — Elizabeth Tsurkov, Forward
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