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Kurdish Forces Retake Ground From Self-Declared Islamic State In Syria


U.S.-led forces in the Middle East are turning more attention to Syria. Recent days have seen some of the heaviest airstrikes in months in Syria. These strikes have helped Kurdish forces on the ground take back some territory from the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. NPR's Deborah Amos was recently near the Syrian border in Turkey reporting on the fighting and joins us now from Istanbul. And Deb, the U.S. has been conducting airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq, but it's also now increasing the attacks in Syria. Why do you think that happened?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, I think we can look at two things. There's reports in the Turkish media that claim that Turkey urged the U.S. to strike ISIS targets - one around a key border town called Azaz and another near Aleppo. That's Syria's largest city in the north - because in the past week, rebels backed by Turkey have launched an offensive against the Syrian regime in Aleppo. So the U.S. strikes helped hold ISIS back. But the heaviest U.S. airstrikes are to support the Kurds. And the U.S. Secretary of Defense said that in public. The Kurds continue to press their momentum, and they look like the best bet to fight ISIS.

MCEVERS: So how much should we read into this Kurdish advance? I mean, does it mean that ISIS is on the ropes?

AMOS: You know, they delivered this surprising win in June in this key border town of Tal Abyad, backed by U.S. airstrikes. They pushed ISIS out in two days. And that was surprising because this town was really important to ISIS. It was their key crossing point into Turkey. They've pushed even further. They've driven ISIS out of about one third of the territory in their stronghold of Raqqa. That's a province that they control in northern Syria.

MCEVERS: Right. So the Kurds have made these advances with U.S. help against ISIS. But that is not pleasing all of the U.S. allies - right? - like the Turks and maybe, possibly the Arab allies in Syria. Why the backlash?

AMOS: Turkey is nervous over these Kurdish gains. Turkey struggles with its own Kurdish minority. Turkey is also an important U.S. ally. So this is more complicated than these wins on the ground that depends on only one partner. But the Turks also see why the Kurds are an attractive partner for the West. They're tough fighters. They're secular. We talked to a political science professor here, Hakan Yilmaz, and he said wars are won at the symbolic level. Turkey is losing, and the Kurds are winning. Here's what he said.



HAKAN YILMAZ: The Kurds. And not just any Kurds, but the Kurds who have adopted the secular values of the West, you know, beautiful girls with Kalashnikovs in their hands killing the radical Islamists. It is the image which is being spread.

MCEVERS: Beautiful girls with Kalashnikovs - so meanwhile the Pentagon has said it would train some Syrian rebels. But so far very few have actually been trained. What's taking so long?

AMOS: Well, we now have a number - 60. That is the Pentagon's number in this multimillion dollar train-and-equip program. And the rebels tell us that the main problem is this signed pledge. They have to promise to only fight ISIS and not the Assad regime which is the point for many of them to be on the battlefield now. There are some pragmatic Syrian Arab rebels who are considering fighting with the Kurds because they know that's the only way they can get U.S. support. They are in awe of U.S. intel to the Kurds. And for example, they tell us that there is this heat detecting technology, and the U.S. can tell the Kurds how many ISIS fighters are still in an un-cleared building. So Syrian rebels who've been fighting for four years are considering fighting with the Kurds.

MCEVERS: Wow, Arab rebels.

AMOS: Yes.

MCEVERS: And still there's a battle going on for the Syrian city of Aleppo where we've seen in recent days that Christians are fleeing. What have you heard about that?

AMOS: Well, we confirmed today that European governments have set up these rescue missions. And what they're doing is they're facilitating an exodus of Syrian Christians from Aleppo. The Belgian government worked on one escape. They are flying Syrian families out of Lebanon after they cross the border. There are other Christian churches in Aleppo. Also, they have escape plans. Some 600 Christians have already left that city.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Istanbul, Turkey. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.