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A Delayed Bloodbath in Syria

A Delayed Bloodbath in Syria

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to establish demilitarized zones around rebel-held territory in Syria’s Idlib province. If you haven’t been following closely, Idlib, located in northwestern Syria along the Turkish border, is home to thousands of rebels and foreign fighters who have taken up arms against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the country’s six-year civil war. It’s also home to about three million civilians—many of them refugees from other war-torn parts of Syria—who risk getting caught in a bloodbath as Assad, with Russian help, seeks to crush one of the last bastions of organized resistance to his regime.


With the UN warning that the battle over Idlib could be a humanitarian catastrophe, Erdogan wants to avoid any more refugees crossing into Turkey, which already hosts 3.5 million Syrians. Putin, for his part, is happy to play the strong statesman in this intractable conflict, as it helps to advance his own country’s interests in any post-war settlement.

The good news: The agreement to create a 15-25 kilometer buffer zone that will be patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops should put any incursion by Syrian forces into Idlib on hold for now. Assad won’t attack without the green light from Putin, and Syrian forces had already suspended most airstrikes in recent days. In theory, it should also give millions of civilians a safe place to hunker down instead of forcing them to seek uncertain refuge in Turkey.

The bad news: Any respite may only be temporary. There is no guarantee that thousands of battle-hardened jihadists and other rebels will agree to retreat from the buffer zone under vague terms set by Erdogan and Putin. And even if they do, civilians elsewhere in Idlib will still be in danger when Assad makes his move. A humanitarian disaster in Idlib has been delayed, but it hasn’t been averted.

The bigger picture: What’s more, as Syria’s horrific civil war grinds towards its conclusion, the country will remain a battleground of competing geopolitical interests, with Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, Israel, the Syrian government, the Kurds, and foreign-backed jihadists all jockeying for position ahead of any peace settlement. With so much military hardware rolling, shooting, sailing, and flying around a patchworked warzone, the risk of a miscalculation that blows up the powder keg are high: consider that on Monday a Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down by a Syrian missile that was actually aiming to hit an Israeli jet that had attacked Iranian forces. Untangle that and you see the problem.

Read more → Syria’s Final Battle

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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