Feb 28, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. We're traversing the globe in 1,458 words (5.5 minutes).

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📺 Mark your calendars — Season 3 of “Axios on HBO” kicks off 6 pm ET/PT Sunday, March 1! 

1 big thing: Syria’s darkest chapter

Family room without a family, in Idlib. Photo: Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The worst humanitarian crisis of Syria’s brutal civil war is colliding today with what could be the war’s most dangerous geopolitical showdown, after at least 29 Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike.

The big picture: The fighting is taking place in Idlib in northwest Syria, where a ferocious Syrian and Russian offensive has displaced 1 million civilians and infuriated Turkey, which borders the region.

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly warned Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies to cease the offensive by the end of the month or face a Turkish military response.
  • Instead, Erdoğan found himself chairing an emergency meeting tonight following the attack, which reportedly came either from Russian or Syrian forces.
  • Turkey is reportedly retaliating against Syrian government targets and conferring with NATO.

Zoom in: Syria's campaign to retake the final rebel strongholds in Idlib — backed by Russian strikes on schools, hospitals and homes — has displaced 1 million people and counting.

  • Turkey closed its borders to them, but a senior Turkish official told Reuters tonight that some may cross into Turkey soon. The official added that Turkey will no longer block the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts from reaching Europe.

With nowhere to go, many in Idlib are sleeping in cars, in caves, in sports stadiums or on the street in bitter winter weather. About half are children.

  • Most are already internally displaced, having fled from other war-torn cities, Hardin Lang of Refugees International tells Axios.
  • The situation in Idlib is on course to eclipse the most severe crises not just of the Syrian War, but of the century so far, Lang says.
  • “The No. 1 thing that needs to be done right now is to reach a ceasefire,” he says.

What to watch: Today’s events make escalation more likely.

  • Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tells Axios that Erdoğan’s next move will depend on NATO.
  • “Turkey cannot fight Russia on its own,” he says. “If there is no U.S. or European support, Ankara will have to swallow this. But then the conflict will spill over, deeply undermining Turkish-NATO ties (Ankara will say NATO didn’t come to help it).”
  • If the U.S. and NATO stand behind Turkey, he says, they could repair relations and sever ties between Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. But it's unclear what exactly NATO would be willing to offer.

Where things stand: A previous request for U.S. help, including for a Patriot missile system to defend against airstrikes, was rebuffed.

  • But following tonight’s attack, Sen. Lindsey Graham called on Trump to establish a no-fly zone "to stop the slaughter and get ahead of a humanitarian crisis,” per Al-Monitor.
  • However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday that there was “no discussion” of the U.S. military “reengaging” in Syria, beyond fighting ISIS.

The bottom line: After nine years, one of the war's most tragic chapters is still being written.

2. Global faith in government shaken
Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

People around the world have grown far more cynical about the idea that their governments have their best interests at heart, according to polling from Pew.

By the numbers: When Pew last asked this question in 2002, majorities in nearly all countries polled believed their government was run to benefit all people. Amid the current populist wave, there is far more doubt.

Zoom in: Italy saw the most remarkable decline in people's belief that the country was run for all, falling from 88% in 2002 to 30% in 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy's mainstream parties have rapidly lost support to populists.

  • Germany, which is also undergoing extreme political fragmentation, also saw a massive drop (86% to 48%).
  • Lebanon, which has been gripped by protests over corruption and poor government services, saw a plunge from 78% to 26%.
  • The U.S. and U.K. saw similar drops, both from around 65% to around 45%. Canada's drop was much smaller (59% to 56%) while France started low but ticked up slightly (40% to 44%).

Bucking the trend were the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Japan (albeit from a low starting point).

3. Middle East: Netanyahu enters election with momentum

Netanyahu campaigns with a friend behind him. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters Israel's third elections in 10 months with momentum — and with his corruption trial looming just two weeks after the vote.

Why it matters: Israeli politics have been deadlocked for nearly a year as Netanyahu and his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, grapple for power. Monday's vote could provide the breakthrough, or set Israel on course for yet another election.

Where things stand: Netanyahu's Likud party has taken a narrow lead in recent polls, ahead of Gantz's Blue and White, which had previously led most polls since September.

  • Netanyahu's recent trips to Washington, for the unveiling of President Trump's peace plan, and Moscow, to secure the release of an Israeli woman held on drug charges, helped boost the prime minister's image as a foreign policy maestro.
  • At the same time, Netanyahu ended his quest for parliamentary immunity from the three corruption indictments against him. That deprived Gantz of the central issue driving his campaign, as he'd plan to focus his electoral push around Netanyahu's immunity hearings.

What to watch: Netanyahu is seeking a right-wing majority in the Knesset, Israel's 120-member parliament. With 61 seats, his political bloc could disrupt the legal proceedings or at least allow him to continue as prime minister during the trial.

  • The latest polls project that the right-wing bloc will win one seat more than Gantz's center-left bloc, but that neither will gain a majority.
  • Gantz has ruled out a unity government, saying he won't negotiate with Netanyahu due to the corruption trial.
  • A fourth election is looking likely.
4. India: New Delhi burns

The aftermath, in New Delhi. Photo: Amal KS/Hindustan Times

Mob violence between Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi has left at least 38 dead. Mosques, homes and shops were burned down.

The big picture: The clashes follow a citizenship law from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government that excludes Muslims and has sparked widespread protests.

  • A local politician from Modi's party was accused of provoking this week's violence by threatening to clear out protests by force.
  • Some accused police of allowing the violence to continue, or even joining Hindu mobs, the Washington Post reports. At least one police officer was killed in the violence.

The violence began while President Trump was in India.

  • He praised Modi during the visit for his efforts on "religious freedom," and he declined to comment on the riots last night except to praise Modi again.

Go deeper

5. Latin America news roundup

Evo Morales addresses supporters from exile in Buenos Aires. Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP via Getty Images

1. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shared a video promoting an upcoming far-right protest that some "suspect is designed to undermine or intimidate Congress ahead of a potential attempt to impeach him," per The Guardian.

  • Two former Brazilian presidents condemned Bolsonaro for backing the anti-Congress protests, set for March 15. One, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, tweeted: "We must shout while we still have a voice.”
  • "Bolsonaro — who is currently battling fresh revelations about his family’s ties to a recently slain hitman — dismissed the criticism as an attempt to 'disrupt the republic.'"
  • "His politician son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, further fanned the flames, tweeting: 'If an H-bomb landed on congress do you really think the people would shed any tears?'"

2. Two MIT researchers found no evidence of fraud in the vote count from Bolivia's election last October, they write in the Washington Post.

  • They dispute the Organization of American States' finding of "clear manipulation" of the results in Morales' favor.
  • Flashback: The result was vacated and President Evo Morales fled into exile after the disputed election.
  • A right-wing interim president, Jeanine Añez, took over. New elections are scheduled for May 3.

3. Women's rights groups in Mexico are calling on women across the country to go on strike on March 9 — no school, no work — to protest violence against women.

6. The virus and the Olympics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the Summer Olympics scheduled to open in Tokyo in less than five months, organizers are facing questions about whether the games could be moved, postponed or even canceled due to coronavirus, Axios' Kendall Baker writes.

The backdrop: Japan has closed schools nationwide until late March, and the country's professional baseball league is currently playing preseason games in empty stadiums.

The state of play: Longtime International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound estimates that the IOC has until late May to decide if the Olympics can go forward as scheduled.

  • If the answer is no, "you're probably looking at a cancellation," he told AP.
  • "You just don't postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There's so many moving parts, so many countries. ... You can't just say, we'll do it in October."

Why it matters: Public-health officials' warnings about the coronavirus are sounding increasingly urgent, so it's imperative that organizers take all necessary precautions ahead of the Olympics, where hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the world will spend two weeks in close quarters then fly home.

The flipside: Despite previous disease outbreaks (Zika in 2014) and frequent geopolitical tensions, the Olympics have only been canceled three times, all due to world wars (1916, 1940, 1944).

7. Stories we're watching

Water returns to a dry riverbed in Louth, Australia. Pboto: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

  1. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak dies at 91
  2. China slaps 10-year sentence on kidnapped Swedish citizen
  3. China fears over AT&T media deal
  4. In photos: coronavirus hits cities around the world
  5. Podcast: Space tourism blasts off
  6. Scoop: What really happened on Netanyahu's landmark Oman visit
  7. Two visions of climate change in 2050


"Go, ducks! I hope you come back alive."
— One Weibo user's reaction to reports that China would be deploying 100,000 ducks to eat locusts swarming Pakistan.
Dave Lawler