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When ISIS Retreats, Turks And Kurds Renew Fighting In Syria


In Syria, the effort to push ISIS out of an important swath of land near the Turkish border has gotten even more complicated. Fighting has broken out between two U.S. allies, Turkish forces and ethnic Kurdish factions in Syria. This isn't just a one-time problem. It's an instance where successes against ISIS are followed by competition among rivals to take over the land the militants leave behind.

NPR's Alice Fordham joins us now from Beirut to explain what these flare-ups signify. And Alice, what exactly happened between the Kurds and the Turks over the weekend?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, Turkey had started an anti-ISIS operation last week which the U.S. supported and which did succeed in retaking a Syrian town called Jarabulus which ISIS has held for years. But they also announced their intention to battle a Kurdish faction that they consider terrorists for their connections to insurgents inside Turkey. Turkey has conducted airstrikes against this Kurdish faction, and they have tweeted pictures of the IDs of dead Kurdish fighters.

And now there are reports that Turkey and their Syrian rebel allies are heading to a town called Manbij. And that's a place that the U.S. helped a Kurdish faction to beat back ISIS in. And the Kurds released a statement saying they hold Manbij, and they're not going anywhere.

SIEGEL: Well. What does all this mean for the people who actually live in the area?

FORDHAM: Well, I guess it's different for people in different places. People in Jarabulus seem pleased that ISIS has gone. There have been Turkish television reporters there. There are civilians back in the town happy to receive food aid for the first time in a long time.

But in Manbij where ISIS was recently kicked out, it seems like there's going to be another battle quite soon, maybe Kurds versus Turks over that town. So life isn't going to return to normal for people there anytime soon.

SIEGEL: And we should explain that there's a very large Kurdish minority in Turkey, and for some years, there's been an insurgency and a counter insurgency between the Turkish government and Kurds there.

FORDHAM: Right, exactly. These are very longstanding amnesties.

SIEGEL: When areas that ISIS has held are reclaimed, places where the Syrian government hasn't held sway for quite a while now, who actually ends up controlling them?

FORDHAM: Well, this is something that we're seeing across Syria and also across the border into Iraq. There's such a wide range of armed groups in both of those countries that we're ending up with a patchwork of areas of control rather than anything more centralized or organized.

So the U.S.-led coalition typically backs a group which helps to get rid of ISIS, but then because there isn't a strong state or unified security forces in either Syria or Iraq, an armed group often with its own agenda takes the territory. Or as we're seeing in Syria, there's even fighting over it.

And so that means that plenty of people can't come back to their homes partly because of the fighting and destruction. And also, as I said, these groups often have an agenda. There have been many, many reports of ethnic Kurds not letting ethnic Arabs back into their area or Shiite Muslims barring Sunni Muslims from coming home.

So it's not always good news for people when their town is retaken from ISIS. Not many people say they like living under ISIS, but naturally people want to stay in their homes.

SIEGEL: Well, if pushing ISIS out of someplace isn't the end of people's problems, how does that affect the larger U.S. goal of getting rid of ISIS?

FORDHAM: Well, a lot of analysts initially said that in Iraq in Syria, ISIS grew up in a vacuum. There was a big, ungoverned area where people were getting nothing from the government, so there was a recruiting ground. And if people still feel like there's no organized state with organized security forces, they could still be attracted to ISIS.

SIEGEL: NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut - Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.