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Turkey's President Says Incursion Into Syria Underway


Turkey says it has now started its offensive into Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Earlier this week, President Trump removed American troops from the region, clearing the way for the Turks to move in. That came after a phone call between Trump and the Turkish president, and it set off accusations that the United States was abandoning the Kurds, who have been strong U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. But Turkey considers the Kurds fighting there to be terrorists. We are joined now by NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is watching all this from Istanbul. Peter, Erdogan tweeted out this announcement today, the Turkish leader. What did he say exactly?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, he announced the start of this operation, and he added why, in his view, this will bring peace to the area by preventing the creation of what he called a terror corridor in northern Syria. Erdogan's comments came as large explosions were heard in the town of Ras al-Ayn over in the Syrian side of the border. Turkish armed forces, armored vehicles and weaponry have been massing along the border, and Ankara has been promising to move into northeast Syria to clear out these Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey views as terrorists. This appears to be the air and artillery start to an operation Turkey's been promising for some time.

MARTIN: So Turkey views these fighters as terrorists, but these are the same fighters who have been so instrumental to the United States in countering ISIS there. I mean, can you just explain why Turkey has a problem with these Kurds? I mean, where's the evidence of terrorism?

KENYON: Well, it's a very - it's a pretty complicated event - series of relationships, as you were trying to explain there. I mean, Turkey's always been hostile to these Syrian Kurdish fighters. They're known as the YPG, People's Protection Units. Turkey sees them as aligned with other Kurdish militants from the PKK that Turkey has been fighting for more than three decades. So Ankara has watched as the U.S. partnered with YPG Kurdish fighters to reclaim territory from Islamic State forces in Syria. They declared a caliphate, of course, in parts of Syria and Iraq. But Turkey's been pressing Washington for a much bigger safe zone in northern Syria, some 20 miles deep, 300 miles across.

Erdogan has said and repeated on Twitter today that one purpose of this operation is to eliminate the threat from the YPG. But then another reason is to allow for the return of some 1 to 2 million Syrian refugees who had come to Turkey over the years. Turkey's been praised internationally for taking in 3 1/2 million or so refugees. But pressure domestically has been growing to send them home. And Erdogan has said many times that is one purpose behind this operation.

MARTIN: So now Turkey has made this advance across the border. Are we hearing anything from Kurdish forces? How are they reacting?

KENYON: Well, Kurdish spokespeople have called for a general mobilization to defend their territory. They've been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe that could result from this attack. The Kurdish-led Syrian defense forces are asking the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone to stop Turkish attacks. The U.S. has made clear it doesn't support this operation. It hasn't act to stop it either, however. And, remember, these Syrian Kurdish fighters were leading the fight against Islamic State forces inside Syria. And there are camps full of ISIS prisoners not that far away. If anything happens that leads to those prisoners escaping, that could trigger a whole new set of problems. Where will they go? And what about civilian people in the area? Where will they go? Turkey certainly doesn't want to take anyone else in.

MARTIN: Right. So where will this go? I mean, I talked to the top commander of those Kurdish forces yesterday who said, if worse comes to worse, he could see perhaps partnering with President Assad in Syria against Turkey.

KENYON: Yes. There's all kinds of relationships that could spring up from this. A lot will depend how far the Turkish military wants to go and how fast. Will they take a small area now and pause or will they keep going and try for something larger?

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting on this from Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Let's get a different view on this. Earlier today, I talked with Douglas Ollivant. He was former director for Iraq at the National Security Council, serving in both the administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, now a senior fellow at New America here in Washington. And I asked him his view on the consequences of President Trump's choice to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria.

President Trump insists that he hasn't sold out the Kurds, and he has threatened to totally destroy and obliterate Turkey's economy - his words - if Turkey does anything off-limits. Do you think Turkey is going to go into Syria and really just focus on ISIS when they have not even been able to keep ISIS from crossing into Syria across their own border?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, I don't think they're going to come in and go to ISIS because there doesn't appear to be much ISIS in the places they intend to go to. The Turks are very clear on this. They're not that concerned about ISIS. They're concerned about the YPG, which they rightly consider to be loosely affiliated with the PKK, which is a designated terror organization of both the Turks and the United States. So it's not like they're just, you know, designating someone willy-nilly here. And they very much want a buffer zone put into place. It appears that what they're trying to do is create a buffer zone of Turkish-affiliated Arabs, mostly refugees from elsewhere in Syria, and put them in this 10, 20, however many mile buffer zone that we're going to see on the border between Turkey and Syria. So they would want Turks, then a band of friendly Arabs and then and only then the YPG Kurds on the other side.

MARTIN: So do you think this is the right move? Do you think the president made the right decision in this moment?

OLLIVANT: I think that the president could have staffed this better, said what are we going to do? OK. You know, Erdogan wants this to happen. We're going to back his play. What are we going to do about the al-Hol prison camp? How do we mitigate that? None of that staff work appears to have happened.

MARTIN: So you're not sure on the overall administration strategy when it comes to Syria.

OLLIVANT: That's a safe statement.

MARTIN: Douglas Ollivant with the New America Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.