Syria vs Turkey vs Russia vs the EU… and the refugees

Fighting has pushed the Syrian province of Idlib to the breaking point. Russian-backed Syrian forces, Syrian rebels trapped inside the city, and Turkey's military are all directly involved, and the stakes in this conflict have risen dramatically in recent days as the conflict threatens to generate a severe humanitarian crisis that sends shock waves through Turkey toward Europe.

Turkey's President Erdogan and Russia's President Putin reportedly agreed on a ceasefire on Thursday, but previous such deals have fallen apart.

So, what do the big players in this conflict want?


If you're Syria's President Assad, you want your country back. Regaining full control of Syria means forcing the total surrender of rebels in Idlib, the last city your forces don't control. You also want your Russian sponsor to force Turkey's army out of your country.

If you're Turkey's President Erdogan, you want Russia, the big military power in Syria, to stop helping Assad attack Idlib. You want a ceasefire and a deal, because you already have 3.6 million foreign refugees, most of them Syrian, living inside your country, and the fall of Idlib might send a million more scrambling in your direction. You also want financial help from Europe to handle all these refugees and EU political help to get the result you want in Syria. To get this help, you'll threaten to tear up the deal you made with Europe in 2016 to house Syrian refugees in exchange for European cash. To show you're serious, you'll nudge a few thousand of them toward European shores.

If you're Greece's government, you want Erdogan to stop pushing refugees toward your borders. Protests have erupted against the refugees you're already sheltering. You want Europe to send money and troops right now to help keep your borders closed during this time of emergency.

If you're the leadership of the European Union, you desperately want to avoid a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015-2016, which turned the bloc's politics upside down. You want Erdogan to know that you understand Turkey's problem and are ready to help with more money—but without appearing to give in to blackmail in ways that would encourage Erdogan to blackmail you some more. You want Greece to know that you're ready to help this frontline member state secure its borders. And you want this problem to go away so you can deal with other pressing problems—like Coronavirus and a slowing European economy.

If you're Vladimir Putin, you want to make the most of the Idlib problem. You want your ally Assad in control in Syria. You want to keep Erdogan in his place. But perhaps most of all, you're happy to see a new wave of refugees further poison relations between NATO member Turkey and the rest of Europe. You want Europe to have to spend more money on this problem, and you want a new migrant crisis—or better yet, the continuing threat of one—to poison the political atmosphere among and inside European countries.

Finally, if you're a refugee, or if you're trapped inside Idlib as bombs fall, or if your family has been living in a tent city inside Turkey for the past three years, you want hope. You want to escape hunger and constant fear. You want to believe that one day, you and your children will have a chance at a normal life.

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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3.5 billion: There are now an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide under some sort of coronavirus lockdown after residents in Moscow (12 million) and Nigeria's capital Lagos (21 million) were ordered to join the ranks of those quarantined at home.

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North Korea has zero coronavirus cases? North Korea claims to be one of few countries on earth with no coronavirus cases. But can we take the word of the notoriously opaque leadership at face value? Most long-term observers of Pyongyang dismiss as fanciful the notion that the North, which shares a border with China, its main trade partner, was able to avert the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Many point to Pyongyang's lack of testing capabilities as the real reason why it hasn't reported any COVID-19 cases. To be sure, Kim Jong-un, the North's totalitarian leader, imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, well before many other countries – closing the Chinese border and quarantining all diplomats. The state's ability to control its people and their movements would also make virus-containment efforts easier to manage. We might not know the truth for some time. But what is clear is that decades of seclusion and crippling economic sanctions have devastated North Korea's health system, raising concerns of its capacity to manage a widespread outbreak of disease.

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As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, all eyes now turn to the place where it all started. For more than two months, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, the Chinese industrial hub where the novel coronavirus was first detected, have lived under near complete lockdown.

Now, as China reports a dwindling number of new cases, the city's people are slowly emerging back into the daylight. Some travel restrictions remain, but public transportation is largely functioning again, and increasing numbers of people are cautiously – with masks and gloves and digital "health codes" on their phones that permit them to move about – going back to work.

The rest of the world, where most hard-hit countries have imposed various forms of lockdown of their own, is now keenly watching what happens in Wuhan for a glimpse of what might lie in store for the rest of us.

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