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World

Turkey Has Attacked A Syrian City Controlled By Kurdish Forces

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

On Saturday, Turkish jets bombed the Syrian city of Afrin. Then yesterday, Turkish troops crossed into Syria, advancing on Afrin and the Kurdish forces who control it. Today, there is still fighting there. It's a new front in the multilayered Syrian civil war and one that puts the U.S. in a tricky situation. Turkey is a NATO ally, but some of the Kurdish forces in Afrin have also partnered with the U.S. to fight against ISIS or, as some say it, ISIL. We wanted to understand Turkey's thinking on the Afrin offensive, so we asked Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the National War College.

OMER TASPINAR: The main reason is Turkey's anger over U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish group in northern Syria. In the eyes of Turkey, this Kurdish group that has been a very effective fighter against the Islamic State - ISIL - is an affiliate of a Kurdish terrorist organization that has been waging a war in Turkey since the 1980s, the PKK. The YPG in Syria, which is the Kurdish group, is strongly affiliated with the PKK. And in the eyes of Turkey, the United States is cooperating with a terrorist organization in order to fight another terrorist organization, and that's not acceptable.

MCEVERS: You know, to listeners, it might sound like a lot of letters - the PKK, the YPG. I think the important distinction for people in the Turkish government - right? - is that some of these fighters have been designated as terrorists and work against the Turkish state, right?

TASPINAR: That's right. The PKK is an acknowledged terrorist organization by the United States. The YPG, however, the Syrian wing of the party is not, and they have never attacked Turkey, so the United States has this gray zone where you can operate, saying, yes, they are organically linked, but they have not targeted Turkey. They are active in Syria, and by the way, they are very effective against ISIL. Turkey basically accepted the U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurds very reluctantly, hoping that this cooperation would end once the fight against ISIL ends. It did not happen this way.

Last week, the United States declared that it would continue its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds and establish a Border Security Force about 30,000 strong. And Turkey realized that this partnership between the United States and the Kurds was turning into a strategic partnership more than just a tactical operational alliance. And it wanted to send a very strong signal to the United States that it would not be acceptable.

MCEVERS: Why go after Afrin specifically?

TASPINAR: Afrin is an area that is geographically very close to Turkey - 15, 20 miles from the Turkish border. And the fact that it is right on the Turkish border makes it operationally easier for Turkey. Turkey does not want to have a contiguous border stretch of Kurdish provinces, and strategically, it makes sense for Turkey to create basically a pocket where it has its own troops to break this contiguity of the Kurdish provinces.

MCEVERS: Do you think there are any successful talks going on between the United States and Turkey about how to sort of ratchet this back, pull this back at this point?

TASPINAR: Well, the Pentagon said that Turkey cleared the targets that it has been hitting with Washington. In that sense, there is some level of acceptance coming from Washington. However, the dialogue between Ankara and Washington has been really strained by Turkey's purchase of missile defense from Russia. Turkey more recently has been aligned its (ph) foreign policy in Syria more with Russia and Iran. There are also problems such as the presence of Fethullah Gulen in the United States, who's a U.S.-based Muslim cleric that Erdogan blames for the failed coup. And in that sense, there is a lot of tension in Turkish-American relations right now.

MCEVERS: Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the National War College, thanks so much.

TASPINAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.