What's happening in Syria's Idlib province?

The final chapter of Syria's bloody civil war is playing out in Idlib province in the country's northwest. A weeks-long offensive by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad to reclaim Idlib has forced almost a million civilians to flee the onslaught, catalyzing "a horrifying new level" of torment in the almost decade-long war, the United Nations says. Meanwhile, Turkey suffered heavy losses yesterday in an airstrike in that region, prompting fears of a serious escalation. We unpack the latest developments in Syria here.


Turkey's recent losses: An airstrike in northwestern Syria yesterday killed at least 33 Turkish troops. It is unclear whether the strike was carried out by Syrian forces or by the Russian jets that support them. (Reminder: Russia is the Syrian government's main ally in the conflict, while Turkey backs some rebel groups in northwest Syria and has also sent its own troops across the border to deter the Syrian government's advance.) For a detailed look at the implications of yesterday's flare-up, see here.

Why Idlib? Whoever controls the province has access to a crucial highway linking the capital, Damascus, to Aleppo, Syria's most populous city. At the moment, it's the last major area controlled by rebel groups but back in December, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, began conducting an aggressive aerial bombardment to recapture it. After pro-government forces recently gained critical ground around Aleppo province, Assad declared the advance a "prelude to complete victory."

The humanitarian crisis: A UN official recently called the situation in northern Syria "the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century." Almost one million civilians – mostly women and children – have been displaced since the Syrian government's offensive began in December, making it the largest exodus in a single period in a conflict that's already displaced some 13 million people. Now, these refugees find themselves stuck between the advancing battlefront and the closed Turkish border. (Ankara has absorbed 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it won't take anymore.) Many of those who fled are languishing in ramshackle camps in freezing conditions with scarce food, heat and medical supplies. There are reports of infants dying from hypothermia in recent weeks, as well as children suffocating as parents tried to warm makeshift tents.

Prospects for a ceasefire? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke Friday in the hopes of reducing tensions in the region, and vowed to enhance coordination between their armies in northern Syria, according to a statement released by the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Ankara called an emergency NATO ambassadors' summit, pulling NATO allies into the increasingly unstable situation. But there seems little prospect of brokering a long-term solution anytime soon.

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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