U.S. Military Pullout From Syria Will Affect Other Forces There

Dec 21, 2018
Originally published on December 21, 2018 11:30 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria prompted some agonized reactions, including from a prominent supporter of the president. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina focused on U.S. allies who would be left behind. Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria have done most of the on-the-ground fighting and dying against ISIS. In a speech, Graham said they will be left vulnerable to hostile neighbors in nearby Turkey.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: What Turkey's going to do is unleash holy hell on the Kurds. In the eyes of Turkey, they're more of a threat than ISIS. So this decision is a disaster.

INSKEEP: What is Graham talking about there? Well, NPR's Peter Kenyon has covered Syria's war and Turkey for years. He's in Istanbul. Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why would Turkey consider launching an attack across the border at these Syrian Kurds?

KENYON: Well, the YPG, the People's Protection Units, as they're called, that's the military arm of a Kurdish group in Syria that Turkey views as very tightly aligned with its own Kurdish militants, a group it's been fighting for decades.

Ankara was upset with Washington for aligning with the YPG in Syria. Turkey calls it creating a terrorist corridor just across the border. Yesterday, the defense minister here was pretty aggressive, saying Kurdish militants would be buried in their ditches when the time comes.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, then the question is, is Turkey really going to try to bury them? Will Turkey cross the border with its rather large military and attack?

KENYON: Not right away, it seems - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has addressed that matter. Just today, he says he welcomes President Trump's move to pull American forces out of Syria. And after his recent phone call with Trump, he's decided to postpone a Turkish military operation. Erdogan says it's a delay, not a change of heart. An operation will take place at some point, targeting both the remnants of ISIS and, he says, Syrian Kurdish units. Ankara regards them as terrorists.

INSKEEP: Well, there was a bit of a news item today that suggests how this might shift the war in Syria, Peter Kenyon. There was a Kurdish spokesman who was quoted saying, listen, we've been fighting ISIS on the side of the United States. But if we think we're going to be attacked by Turkey, we've got to shift some forces away from ISIS and be ready to face down Turkey.

KENYON: Well, that's right. And they've also talked about maybe even releasing thousands of ISIS prisoners so they can use those men guarding them to help with the fight against Turkey, if that's what's going to come. One YPG spokesman disputes releasing the prisoners. But we'll see what happens.

The general concern - Britain, France and elsewhere in NATO - is that this U.S. troop withdrawal could lead ISIS to regroup and have a resurgence. It's lost most of its territory, but it has many supporters still lying low in both Syria and Iraq.

INSKEEP: Is there another group that could move into this territory that the Kurds, as allies of the U.S., have recently taken? And by that I mean Syria's government. Could Bashar al-Assad send his military in after the Kurds?

KENYON: An absolute possibility, and also Iran is something to be watched as well. This has been seen as something of a gift to Iran, the U.S. military pullout, if it happens. It's only been 2,000 strong, the U.S. personnel there, but it has been seen as a deterrent to Iran establishing a long-term presence in Syria. That's an issue for allies like Israel.

INSKEEP: Peter, it's always a pleasure listening to you and learning from you. I hope you enjoy the holidays.

KENYON: You too, Steve, thanks.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.