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Thousands Flee Syria as Turkey Launches Military Offensive

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  • Turkey formally started a military offensive in Syria Wednesday, launching airstrikes, bombs, and sending in ground troops.
  • Numerous civilian and military deaths have been reported, and an estimated 60,000 Syrians have fled the region.
  • The move comes after the Trump administration announced it would step aside to let Turkey launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
  • Many world leaders and U.S. lawmakers, including Republicans who have been staunch supporters of President Trump, condemned the move, with some arguing that Trump will be responsible for the fallout.

Turkey Launches Offensive

Turkish military forces have entered the second day of an offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

The assault started on Wednesday with Turkish forces launching airstrikes, bombing and shelling the territory. Several hours later, Turkish troops crossed the border into Northern Syria, officially starting a ground offensive.

The move comes just days after the White House announced that the U.S. would be stepping aside to allow Turkey to go forward with the long-planned operation while also removing U.S. troops from the region.

The announcement appeared to follow a call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has said that this military operation is necessary to secure Turkey’s border with Syria and clear groups Turkey believes are terrorists. The operation targets the Kurdish groups that largely control that region of Northern Syria.

Specifically, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) which makes up most of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey claims that those groups are allied with a separatist movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been responsible for violent attacks in Turkey.

While Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist group, the U.S. does not. U.S. forces in Syria have recruited and trained the SDF for years to fight alongside them, and the SDF has done the majority of fighting on the ground against ISIS fighters in the region.

For a while, the U.S. has discouraged Turkey from launching a military operation against the Kurdish forces who have been fighting ISIS with them. But now, many have argued that the U.S. has basically given Turkey the green light to launch a military offensive against their own key allies.

The Numbers So far

Shortly after the operation began, pictures and videos began circulating showing civilians fleeing amid smoke from the sites of the bombings.

The New York Times reported that the airstrikes on the first day alone hit in or near at least five towns along more than 150 miles of the border, while Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed on Thursday that it has hit 181 of its “terrorist” targets.

The Defense Ministry also said Thursday that 174 militants have already been killed, but that has not been independently verified.

Others have reported lower numbers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 23 SDF fighters were killed though dozens more were injured

As for civilians, the Kurdish Red Crescent reported that at least 11 civilians have been killed so far, including two children.

The Syrian Observatory also said that more than 60,000 Syrians have already fled the immediate region.

The fact that so many are already fleeing is likely to worsen the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria. 

It also appears to complicate Erdogan’s plan to carve out a so-called safe zone at the border where he would return Syrian refugees. Now, many are saying that the military operation will just create more refugees.

World Leaders Respond

Concern over refugees and other humanitarian issues have been raised by numerous world leaders who have condemned Turkey’s actions.

European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the EU “calls upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action,” continuing that the operation will “undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements.”

A spokesperson for the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also emphasized the need for civilian protections in a statement.

“Civilians and civilian infrastructure should be protected. The secretary-general believes that there’s no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” the spokesperson said.

A number of Middle Eastern leaders have also publicly criticized the move. In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry condemned “the aggression launched by the #Turkish army.” 

“The seriousness of this aggression on northeastern Syria has negative repercussions on the security and stability of the region, especially undermining the [international] efforts in combating ISIS organization,” the statement continued.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also took to Twitter, where he said that Israel “strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies.”

U.S. Leaders Criticize Trump

After Turkey officially launched the military operation, President Trump was swiftly met with outrage by U.S. lawmakers, including notable Republicans who have been staunch supporters of the president. 

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) directly blamed Trump for the violence in a tweet on Wednesday.

“News from Syria is sickening,” she wrote. “Turkish troops preparing to invade Syria from the north, Russian-backed forces from the south, ISIS fighters attacking Raqqa. Impossible to understand why @realDonaldTrump is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has also been very vocal in his opposition to the Trump administration’s decision.

“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” he said in a tweet. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke out on the issue as well, and added that Congress could take action against Trump’s decision,

“[The Kurds] actually fought on the ground. They had people dying. To just abandon them like that so the Turks can come in and slaughter them is not just immoral, it taints our reputation all over the world,” he said.

“It’s a terrible mistake. We’ll have to think of what options there are. I’m sure the Senate will, potentially, take some vote to disagree with that decision.”

Trump Defends Decision

But Trump, for his part, has continued to defend his decision. 

In a statement to the media, Trump said that the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” and added that Turkey is “committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also reiterated that he would crack down on Turkey economically if they did something he did not like in Syria.

However, several of his later remarks received some backlash.

When asked about the U.S. alliance with the Kurds, Trump said: “As somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing.” 

He was also asked by reporters whether he was concerned about ISIS fighters breaking free from Kurdish custody, to which he responded, “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.” 

See what others are saying: (NPR) (BBC) (CNN)

International

China Cautiously Crawls Out of Zero COVID Policy

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Estimates put the number of people who will die if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.


People Go Back to Bars

The Chinese government has begun to ease some of its notoriously strict pandemic lockdown measures, signaling that the end of the “zero-COVID” policy may be on the horizon.

On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.

In Shanghai, visitors to most sites will require a negative test within the last week, rather than the last two days, though schools, hospitals, and bars will require one within the past 48 hours.

Dining in restaurants in some parts of Beijing is still prohibited, but bars and restaurants in many areas of the country are reopening.

In Urumqi, where anti-lockdown protests erupted late last month after an apartment fire killed 10 people, authorities said in a statement Monday that malls, markets, and other venues will reopen.

Zhengzhou, the central city home to the world’s largest iPhone plant which was last month rocked by violent unrest, will no longer require COVID test results for public transport, taxis, and visits to “public areas”, authorities said in a Sunday statement.

Beijing authorities had required registration to purchase fever, cough, and soar throat medicine, which they believed people were using to hide their coronavirus infections, but that mandate has been lifted. Certain districts in the capital also announced that some residents may self-isolate inside their homes rather than being forced to quarantine in a centralized facility.

Is China Ready to Reopen?

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said last week that the country’s health system had withstood the test of the virus and that the omicron subvariant is less deadly than previous strains.

But there has not been a significant drop in cases recently to prompt the easing of restrictions. On Monday, the government reported 30,014 new cases, down from last week’s peak of over 40,000 but still near record highs for China.

Some observers speculate that the government’s move was related to the recent protests, in which thousands of people poured onto the streets of several major cities to demand freedom and an end to the zero-COVID policy. Authorities cracked down on demonstrators, and any mention of the protests was rigorously censored on Chinese social media.

There was no sign of any significant unrest this weekend.

Although many people are excited to enjoy less restricted lives and restart a shuddered economy, others are concerned about the public health consequences reopening society could incur. Estimates put the number of people who will die from the coronavirus if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.

Last week, the government launched a campaign to vaccinate the elderly population.

Only about 40% of people over the age of 80 have gotten their booster shot, according to official statistics.

Health experts and economists say vaccination rates and ICU preparedness won’t be sufficient to fully end the zero-COVID policy until mid-2023 or 2024.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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International

India Pedestrian Bridge Collapsed 4 Days After Renovations, Killing Over 100 People

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The company responsible for the upkeep of the Morbi bridge did not obtain a safety certificate before re-opening.


Bridge Collapses

After seven months of renovations, the Morbi walking bridge in India opened to the public. Four days later, the bridge collapsed, killing more than 130 people. 

According to the local government, there were about 200 people on the bridge when it collapsed on Sunday, despite its capacity of 125. 

During a campaign event on Monday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the state government had set up a committee to investigate the tragedy.

“I assure the people of the country that there will be nothing lacking in the relief and rescue efforts,” he stated.

Along with the investigation, the state has launched a criminal complaint against Oreva Group, the company responsible for maintaining the bridge. Oreva Group reopened the bridge after renovations without getting a safety certificate from the government. 

Shifting Blame

In response, Oreva Group spoke to a local news outlet and blamed those on the bridge for its collapse.

“While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other,” the group claimed.

The state government has offered compensation for the families of the deceased, but that is not enough for some. One father whose wife and two children died in the collapse told VICE he wants answers and accountability.

“Why were so many people given tickets? Who allowed them? Who is answerable?” he asked.

Indian police have arrested nine people including ticketing clerks and security guards for failing to regulate the crowd, according to Reuters. 

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (VICE) (CNN)

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Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on China by Eliminating Rivals

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Despite the staggering power grab, Xi faces geopolitical competition from abroad as well as social and economic instability at home.


Xi Surrounds Himself With Allies

Chinese President Xi Jinping shook up politics over the weekend when he revealed the government’s new leadership, almost exclusively composed of his own hardline loyalists.

Six men — Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Xi — will form the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body.

The four new members are all Xi loyalists, pushing out Premier Li Keqiang and the head of China’s top advisory body Wang Yang, two key party figures outside Xi’s inner circle who retired despite being eligible to serve another term.

For the first time in a quarter-century, China’s 24-member Politburo will be made up entirely of men, underlining the exclusion of women from Chinese politics.

An official account of the selection process said that a top criterion for leadership was loyalty to Xi, and rising officials must stay in lockstep with him “in thinking, politics and action.”

Topping off the developments, Xi officially secured an unprecedented third term as leader, something that was only made possible in 2018 when the government abolished term limits on the presidency. The weekend marked China’s greatest consolidation of political power in a single figure in decades.

As the 20th Communist Party Congress came to a close Saturday, China’s former leader Hu Jintao appeared reluctant as he was suddenly and inexplicably escorted from his seat next to Xi out of the Great Hall of the People.

Some commentators have argued that a tightly knit band of yes men may help Xi fend off internal party dissent, but it could ultimately result in poor governance as his subordinates fear giving him bad news.

The Arc of History Bends Toward China

Despite the extreme concentration of political power, China’s Communist Party stares down a gauntlet of challenges both foreign and domestic.

Beijing remains locked in a strategic competition with Washington, which has sought to contain the East Asian rival’s rise as a global superpower, but the past week’s congress may portend a stubbornly defiant China for years to come.

Xi is expected to use his firmly secure position within the party to pursue his agenda in full force — by strengthening Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, expanding China’s economic foothold in developing countries, and achieving self-sufficiency in strategic technologies such as semiconductors.

At home, China’s economy has faltered during the pandemic, with high unemployment, low consumption, and slow economic growth putting pressure on a government that stakes much of its legitimacy on promises to deliver prosperity to the population. Between July and September, the country’s GDP grew by 3.9%, according to official data released Monday, which is above many analysts’ expectations but still far below the state’s target of around 5.5%.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics postponed the data’s publication last week ahead of the 20th party congress, reinforcing concerns that Xi’s leadership will put politics before economics.

Monday’s announcement roiled stock markets, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index plunging 6%, as well as the Shanghai Composite and the Shenzhen Composite Index both falling by about 2%.

Beijing has also seen increased political resistance from the population, from anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai to widespread mortgage boycotts over delays from real estate developers.

Last week, a man unfurled two large banners from an overpass in Beijing and called President Xi a “dictator” through a megaphone.

Such small-scale demonstrations are not new, but they took place in the capital just before the congress drew enough attention for photos of the stunt to go viral on social media, where an equally swift censorship campaign stamped out any mention of it.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (The Washington Post)

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