What To Expect From Turkey's Offensive In Northern Syria
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
What does Turkey want? It's a question worth considering at this moment, when President Trump has announced that the U.S. will pull troops away from Turkey's border with Syria. The announcement was made shortly after a phone call with the Turkish president, and it is apparently an effort to get those American troops out of the way of a planned Turkish offensive. Well, here to talk us through how Turkey fears the situation is Omer Taspinar. He's a professor of national security strategy at the National War College and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
OMER TASPINAR: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: So what is Turkey's immediate goal here? Why does Turkey want to send forces across the border into Syria?
TASPINAR: Well, the main concern of the national security establishment in Turkey is the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Syria. There are many different Kurdish groups in the Middle East. For instance, Turkey has good relations with Iraqi Kurds. However, Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency since the 1980s. And this Kurdish group has a Syrian branch, and the Syrian branch has become the main partner of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.
KELLY: All right, so you've described the thinking in regards to the Kurds. Meanwhile, Turkey is wrestling with a huge number of Syrian refugees who have flowed across the border into Turkey because of war in Syria. And Turkey would like to find a way to move them back to Syria and set up some kind of safe zone for them.
TASPINAR: That's an additional reason why Erdogan wants to engage in this adventure.
KELLY: Erdogan, the Turkish president.
TASPINAR: That's right. And right now, the Turkish economy is going through a recession, and there's a lot of scapegoating. And the Syrian refugees in Turkey are, in the eyes of many Turks, the people to blame. So Erdogan, by going to northern Syria, establishing what he calls a safe zone, is hoping to also convince some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to go to northern Syria. He wants to build new cities there, and Turkish construction companies potentially see this as a lucrative way of making money. In that sense, there is also an economic logic rationale behind what Turkey is doing.
KELLY: Let me ask you this. Nearly everyone here in Washington has found something not to like about Trump's announcement - Republicans, Democrats, people all over the political spectrum raising the fear that these Kurdish troops who have been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS will be wiped out. We spoke to Senator Angus King, who is an independent from Maine on NPR yesterday. Here's what he said.
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ANGUS KING: Let's be clear here. There's a possibility of a bloodbath, and we will have blood on our hands. We will have enabled it.
KELLY: We will have enabled it, he says. Do you see potential for that, for a bloodbath?
TASPINAR: Well, the Kurdish forces in Syria will definitely fight back. Turkey has been unable to defeat the Kurdish insurgency at home. And definitely, the terrain in northern Syria is conducive to a major confrontation. But there's a strong chance that the Turkish military can be bogged down also, especially in urban centers in northern Syria.
KELLY: The Turkish military is vastly larger and better resourced, though.
TASPINAR: That's right. But when you fight a guerrilla war, having a large army sometimes does not translate into a strategic victory. And the Turkish army will certainly not be welcomed in this region, which has a Kurdish population.
KELLY: How worried should we be about an ISIS comeback - that if the U.S. pulls back and Turkey sweeps in and chaos unfolds, that ISIS will regain its foothold?
TASPINAR: Well, if you're Kurdish fighters on the ground and you have more than 10,000 ISIS prisoners in detention centers and you feel betrayed by the United States, one of the first things you would do is to release these ISIS fighters in detention. So there is a strong chance that there will be 10,000 to 15,000 ISIS fighters on the loose in northern Syria.
KELLY: That's - I mean, that sounds terrifying - 10,000 to 15,000 ISIS fighters on the loose in Syria.
TASPINAR: That's potentially what troubles the national security establishment in the United States.
KELLY: Doesn't Turkey worry about ISIS? That can't be good news for Turkey to have, right across the border, potentially 10,000, 15000 ISIS fighters on the loose.
TASPINAR: The United States and Turkey have different threat perceptions. Turkey's main threat perception - it's enemy No. 1 - has been Kurdish nationalism, terrorism with Kurdish ethnic roots. For the United States, enemy No. 1, since 9/11, has been jihadist terrorism. So up until Syria, the two countries were able to agree to disagree on their threat perceptions. But with Syria, there emerged a situation where the United States partnered up with the Kurdish terrorist group in the eyes of Turkey. And Turkey has turned a blind eye to jihadist groups in Syria by basically opening its border, and a lot of ISIS fighters entered Syria through Turkey. So this is a nightmare for Turkish-American relations.
KELLY: One last question on the subject of Turkish American relations. What kind of leverage does the U.S. have over Turkey? You will have seen the tweet from President Trump yesterday threatening to destroy and obliterate Turkey's economy if Turkey does anything off-limits. He didn't state what those limits are. Do threats like that give Turkey pause?
TASPINAR: Well, the tweet came only hours after the American president gave the green light to Turkey to go to northern Syria. So obviously, President Trump is very erratic and mercurial when it comes to tweeting. And there is concern in Turkey. President Trump is right when he says he can really cause harm to the Turkish economy because he did exactly that a couple years ago when he sent a few tweets in anger against Erdogan over another matter. And immediately, the Turkish lira lost about 30% of its value, and there was a financial panic in Turkey. So yes...
KELLY: So it's not an empty threat.
TASPINAR: It's definitely not an empty threat. In fact, it may have caused some pause in Turkey, and the United States has economic leverage.
KELLY: Omer Taspinar of the National War College and the Brookings Institution.
Thank you for stopping by.
TASPINAR: Pleasure. Thank you.
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