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Turkey Pressed To Intervene In Border Town's Fight Against ISIS


That's the sound of riots in Turkey today. Turkish media say at least a dozen people have been killed in street fighting in cities across that country. Protesters are demanding the Turkish government do more to defend the Syrian border town of Kobani from ISIS militants. Turkey's president says the largely Kurdish town is about to fall to ISIS. But Turkish tanks and troops stationed on the border are not intervening. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul. Peter, these demonstrations are getting violent. What's going on?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, these protests actually occurred all across Europe as well. But here in Turkey, they broke out in Istanbul and Ankara and in a largely Kurdish southeast. And that's where Turkish state news agencies say most of the fatalities occurred. They're still sorting out exactly what happened, unconfirmed reports of live ammunition being used.

But one reason for the protest is that Kurds have basically been told by their leaders to go help the Syrian Kurds across in Kobani who are fighting ISIS, but the Turkish border guards aren't letting them go. And Kobani being so close to the border, people can literally watch the town begin to fall. They can't do anything to help. And the anger after these deaths especially is only likely to grow.

MARTIN: So as you say, Kurds in Turkey want to go help the Kurds in Kobani. Why is the Turkish government prohibiting that?

KENYON: Well, if you step back from the conspiracy theories that Ankara is secretly happy to see its longtime Kurdish adversaries weakened, then a couple of things stand out. First the Syrian Kurds don't want Turkish tanks and troops in their territory any more than the Turks want to be there. They've been fighting for too long, at least some Kurds and Turks.

The second thing is that the arguments against ground intervention in Syria at all are as compelling as ever. For years, Turkey's been calling for safe zones, no-fly zones, areas where Syrians can be safe without becoming refugees. A couple of years ago, they were talking about two or three such safe zones. But military officials and analysts responded then as they do now, no-fly zones and safe quarters are much easier to talk about than to actually create and especially to maintain. Then you need constant air support and ground forces to defend them. And whoever finds themselves doing that is at risk of being sucked further into the conflict.

MARTIN: So, Peter, just so we're clear, you're saying that the Syrian Kurds don't want help from the Turkish military, even though ISIS is attacking this very important city.

KENYON: Well, that's right. They do need help, and they want help. But having their longtime foes come in with tanks and troops is not something that they're looking forward to.

MARTIN: The U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS around the town of Kobani. Have those been effective?

KENYON: They were a number of strikes yesterday. And according to Kurds I spoke with on the border, they did seem to give a lift to the fighters inside Kobani. But everyone seems to agree airstrikes aren't enough. The American Envoy on combating ISIS, retired General John Allen, is due here later this week. And that's amid what's described in Washington as an active conversation with Ankara about how Turkey might do more. The moment Turkish leaders say their forces are poised to intervene only if necessary to save a small group of Turkish soldiers. They're guarding a shrine in northern Syria called the Tomb of Suleyman Shah. You know Ankara's already had one hostage crisis when the city of Mosul fell. It's still fending off allegations that it had to swap a large number of ISIS prisoners to get them out. So the last thing it wants is to have potentially more kidnap victims.

MARTIN: Peter, tell us about Kobani. Why is this town seen as being so important in the fight against ISIS?

KENYON: Well, partly because it's on people's television screens every night. In the broad military picture, it's more symbolic than vital. But the fighters themselves are important. These Syrian Kurds from the PYD, they're linked to Turkey's PKK Kurdish militants. They've been one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS. They helped rescue minorities Yazidis over in northwest Iraq this summer. They've fiercely defended their territory. So militarily, seeing these forces defeated would be a blow.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Istanbul. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.