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Turkey Calls On U.S. To Ramp Up ISIS Airstrikes In Syrian Border Town

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the Syrian town of Kobani, flush against the border with Turkey, a battle has been raging for weeks. Forces of ISIS, the jihadist group that calls itself the Islamic State, are fighting to take over the town. Syrian Kurds are fighting to defend it. It is so close to Turkey that Kurds who have already fled there, as well as journalists, watched the battle from relative safety north of the border.

There have been U.S.-led airstrikes around Kobani and a Turkish deputy prime minister today urged the U.S. to ramp up airstrikes against ISIS to prevent it from taking the town. Even so, the Turkish army, which is massed nearby, shows no sign of intervening. To help us sort out this multi-sided conflict, in which the Turks play a central role, Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief of the Washington Post, joins us from southern Turkey. Welcome to the program, once again.

LIZ SLY: Hello, thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, as best you can tell, who is winning the battle of Kobani?

SLY: Well, at the moment, it's clear that the Islamic State is winning. They have advanced steadily and unimpeded for the past three weeks. And it really looked like this town was about to fall today. However, Kurds are now telling us that they have managed to push the Islamic State back, at least to the edges of the town again, helped today by an intense wave of U.S. airstrikes, which is actually the heaviest that they've seen yet.

SIEGEL: How important is this town of Kobani? What is its strategic value? Should it, indeed, fall to ISIS?

SLY: It doesn't really have a lot of strategic value at all. It's a really tiny little town, but it's developed a huge symbolic value because this town is attacked by ISIS just as the U.S. coalition began carrying out airstrikes in Syria. And, certainly, the question was are they going to intervene to protect this little town? And is Turkey also going to intervene to protect this little town?

As you said, it's a huge complicated triangle. Then to put it in the spotlight that it probably wouldn't have had had the U.S. not been striking Syria at this time.

SIEGEL: But how do the Turks square their own non-interventionism in a fight that is within plain sight of their own soil with a call for more U.S. airstrikes there? They don't seem to be undecided about which side they're on, in that case.

SLY: Well, yes, it's an extremely kind of ambivalent position that Turkey found itself in. Turkey doesn't want to help America (unintelligible) Syria unless it does so on its terms. Turkey wants the U.S. government to target the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as much as it is targeting ISIS.

And the whole American strategy so far has not taken into account the fact that President Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Damascus. So the Turks have been quite firm on this. They want a strategy that includes bringing (unintelligible) before they will get actively involved in fighting ISIS in the north of Syria.

SIEGEL: This is obviously - what's happening in Kobani is of great interest to us here and I'm sure to all Syrians. Is it something that the Turks are following closely? I mean, are they - is this a big story in Turkey?

SLY: Yes, it is a big story in Turkey. All the TV cameras are down there. Everybody's watching it. And there are also very important domestic implications for Turkey as well, of having this war raging on its border with Kurds. We've also seen the beginning of some potentially quite serious civil unrest in some Turkish cities where Kurds have been out protesting against the Turkish inaction.

SIEGEL: Are the Turks more concerned about independence-minded Kurds than they are about the rise of ISIS in Syria?

SLY: I think that is the conclusion that most people are drawing from that. And I think many Turks would tell you that is the case.

SIEGEL: Well, Liz Sly, thank you very much for updating us on all this.

SLY: Thank you,

SIEGEL: That's Liz Sly, who is the Beirut bureau chief of the Washington Post. She was speaking to us from Antakya in southern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.