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U.S. Troop Withdrawal Essentially Hands Fight Against ISIS Over To Turkey

Dec 26, 2018
Originally published on December 26, 2018 7:50 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Turkey says it is going to coordinate with the United States in pulling American forces out of Syria. But are they really a reliable partner? After all, Turkey has been desperate to target the Kurdish forces, who have been crucial U.S. allies. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul to talk about this. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So how closely are the U.S. and Turkey working together here?

KENYON: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. Turkey seems to be the one mainly pushing this idea of coordination. It may have its own reasons. Earlier, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was saying a Turkish military operation would be postponed until the U.S. withdrawal is finished. That could last into the spring. But now Erdogan's new position is close coordination with the U.S. as it withdraws, which suggests to some that Turkey might be preparing to make a move before the pullout's fully complete.

Turkey-U.S. relations are a bit better these days since Pastor Andrew Brunson, for instance, was released from Turkey, and now Trump has announced the Syrian troop pullout. Turkish officials say that leaves them free to send their military in to go finish the fight against Islamic State and also attack these Syrian Kurdish units that the Americans have seen as their partners but the Turks see as terrorists.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, that's the big, looming question here. Right? I mean, there's a Turkish official who said now, you know, given the United States is leaving, Kurdish forces are going to be buried. I mean, they've already felt kind of abandoned by the United States so I mean, what happens now?

KENYON: Well, that is the big question. It was Turkey's defense minister who had that quote. He said these militants, the Kurdish fighters, will be buried in their ditches. The plans Turkey's talking about seem to involve at least two areas in northern Syria - east of the Euphrates River, and then around the Syrian town of Manbij. Those are areas held by these Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara opposes.

The latest reports from Manbij suggest there's another factor at play. Regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have reportedly moved into a village near there. That's raised more speculation. Is there another fight coming up, or are the Kurds looking to make some kind of accommodation with Assad and the government? And meanwhile, the Turks are amassing more tanks and troops just across the border.

GREENE: You know, Peter, we've been talking about the implications of this U.S. pullout, like, what it means for Russia, what it means for Iran, what it means for the Assad regime and what it means for Turkey. Like, I mean, to what extent is Turkey really emboldened here?

KENYON: Well, if you judge by the official comments here, it is to some extent definitely emboldened. But Syria remains a very complicated place. The expectations these days have been that the Assad regime is going to largely regain control eventually with the help of its allies, Russia and Iran. But there also remains Israel.

According to Syrian state media, Israel launched more airstrikes in Syria today. They're worried about Iran establishing a long-term presence there, of course, and worried about arms getting to Hezbollah in Lebanon. France has forces on the ground, and they're making noises about moving in with the Kurds and Turkey doesn't like that. So it's a very complicated situation.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.