U.S.-Backed Turkish Offensive In Syria Threatens Alliance With Kurds
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When the U.S. backed a Turkish offensive into Syria this week, it was taking a step in repairing strained relations with Turkey. With U.S. air cover, Turkey and the fighters its backing in Syria only needed about a day to force ISIS out of an important town on the Syria-Turkey border.
It might sound like a win-win, but it's not for some other U.S. allies that have been important in fighting ISIS. Those other allies are Kurdish factions who were also approaching the town. Those factions and the Turkish government are longtime adversaries. NPR's Alice Fordham reports that Kurds are watching and wondering if this is an important shift in alliances.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Turkey and the Syrian rebels it backs began their attack on the town of Jarablus early Tuesday morning. By Wednesday evening, those Syrian fighters had moved into the town's center.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Allahu akbar.
FORDHAM: They uploaded videos of themselves celebrating and posted photos of their men sleeping in the streets, boasting that they were not damaging a single house. A Syrian commando called Ahmed Kandu spoke to NPR.
AHMED KANDU: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: "God willing, there will be advances," he says. With Turkish support, they plan to take control of the ISIS-held town of al-Bab next. American warplanes helped, he says, carrying out two or three raids before the battle.
But NPR reached Shervan Darwish, a spokesman from another armed group about 20 miles south of there, and he was not pleased. He regards this as a Turkish invasion.
SHERVAN DARWISH: (Through interpreter) Of course today Jarablus is under occupation. There is no other word for it.
FORDHAM: Darwish is Kurdish, part of a Kurdish-led faction the U.S. has been supporting because it fights against ISIS. But Syria's Kurds have a longstanding feud with Turkey, and Darwish is furious with the U.S.-led coalition.
DARWISH: (Through interpreter) The coalition must comply with the commitment they gave us not to let the Turkish army enter Syria.
DARWISH: For Syria's Kurds, this could be a turning point. They've long been a downtrodden ethnic minority in Syria, but during the chaos of the five-year civil war, the largest Kurdish faction has won a sizable zone of control. They got the U.S. to help them by offering to fight against ISIS and even recruited non-Kurds - Arabs and Christians - to join the project.
But Turkey considers that Kurdish faction to be a terror group linked to Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. So it was good news for Turks when Vice President Joe Biden said this week that Kurdish fighters had to keep a promise to retreat back across the Euphrates river.
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VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They cannot, will not and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment.
FORDHAM: Kurds were outraged, noting their successes against ISIS. But Kamran Matin, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the U.K.'s University of Sussex, said they shouldn't have been surprised.
KAMRAN MATIN: They have tried to basically test the limits of U.S. support in their specific project. They reached the end of it.
MATIN: He says the U.S. has been warning the Kurds not to overreach. Now it seems that warning is being enforced. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.