- 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.”
Coronavirus Cases and Deaths Rise
- The new coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China has now killed at least 81 people and more than 2,700 cases have been detected worldwide.
- Most of the cases are in China, though low numbers have been found in other nations, including the United States.
- Wuhan’s mayor has offered to resign in wake of criticism for the Chinese government’s response to the health crisis.
- The United States, France, and Japan have all announced plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and bring them home on limited-capacity flights.
The coronavirus outbreak that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan significantly worsened over the weekend, bringing the death toll to at least 81 and the confirmed number of cases to over 2,700.
The majority of the cases have been found in China, but several have been detected in other nations across four continents, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and France.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed three newly-detected cases of the novel coronavirus in Southern California and Arizona, bringing the overall number of infected people in the U.S. to five. The other cases were found last week in Washington and Illinois.
“It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread,” the CDC wrote.
“While this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time,” it added.
No deaths from the coronavirus have been reported outside of China.
Chinese Government’s Response
In efforts to control the outbreak of the novel virus, plans have been made to rapidly build a new hospital and travel bans have been imposed around the nation, affecting millions of people.
As conditions have worsened, Chinese officials are facing criticism from people saying that their response to the outbreak was too slow.
Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, defended himself in an interview with the state broadcaster CCTV, saying that he had to wait for authorization from Beijing officials before he could make certain critical information public.
Regardless of this point, Mayor Xianwang also offered to step down from his position and said that he and Ma Guoqiang, the city’s Communist Party secretary, will resign and take the blame if it will appease the public.
Xianwang’s comments were broadcasted the same day Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest ranking official, arrived in Wuhan to inspect regulation efforts of the disease. His visit is seen as a move to prove the central government’s adequate involvement with this crisis.
In further attempts to impose the travel bans, the Chinese government extended the Lunar New Year holiday by three days. The weeklong celebration started on Friday and was supposed to end this Thursday, but the spreading virus threw a wrench in many people’s travel and celebration plans. Now employees won’t have to return to work until Feb. 3.
International Evacuation Plans
Despite China’s imposed travel bans, other nations have devised plans to evacuate their citizens from high-risk areas and bring them home.
The U.S. Department of State announced its plans to bring select consulate staff members and other American citizens from Wuhan to San Francisco on a flight on Jan. 28.
“This capacity is extremely limited and if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus,” the Department said.
France’s government is arranging similar plans to bring French nationals back from the Wuhan area via air travel. Once these passengers return, they will be required to spend a maximum of 14 days in quarantine.
Japan also said they would be chartering at least one plane this week to bring citizens home from Wuhan.
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (CBS)
China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads
- Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people.
- More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
- The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States.
- Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.
Race to Build Hospital
In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic.
The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site.
China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.
“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”
The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week.
The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.
What is the Coronavirus?
The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.
Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.
At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans.
More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.
See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)
Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom
- British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
- The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
- While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.
Brexit Becomes Law
After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.
In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.
The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline.
Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.
When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU.
Reaction to Brexit’s Passage
Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance.
Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections.
However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage.
Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.
On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter.
“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”
To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.
On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.
What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?
Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.
During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.
The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.
As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.
At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.
But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.