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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.

Go deeper

Group of 20 bipartisan senators back $1.2T infrastructure framework

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) arrives for a meeting with Senate Budget Committee Democrats in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Majority Leader and Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are meeting to discuss how to move forward with the Biden Administrations budget proposal. Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

A group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators (the "G20") tasked with negotiating an infrastructure deal with the White House has released a statement in support of a $1.2 trillion framework.

Why it matters: Details regarding the plan have not yet been released, but getting 10 Republicans on board means the bill could get the necessary 60 votes to pass.

DOJ drops criminal probe, civil lawsuit against John Bolton over Trump book

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Justice Department has closed its criminal investigation into whether President Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton disclosed classified information with his tell-all memoir, “The Room Where it Happened," according to a source with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: The move comes a year after the Trump administration tried to silence Bolton by suing him in federal court, claiming he breached his contract by failing to complete a pre-publication review for classified information. Prosecutors indicated they had reached a settlement with Bolton to drop the lawsuit in a filing on Wednesday.

Fed may raise rates sooner, as inflation is higher than expected

Feb chair Jerome Powell. Photo: Susan Walsh/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve kept rates unchanged at its latest policy meeting, but a shift in sentiment emerged as to how soon it should begin raising rates.

Why it matters: The Fed's rock-bottom rates policy and monthly asset purchases helped the U.S. markets avoid a meltdown during the COVID-19 crisis last year. But as the economy recovers, a chorus is growing for the Fed to at least consider a timeline for pulling back its support before things get overheated.

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