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Turkey's Military Offensive In Syria Tests Its NATO Relationship

NOEL KING, HOST:

Turkey is continuing its push into Syria, threatening Syrian Kurds. President Trump has told Turkey to stop its assault on the Kurds, although it's an assault his administration paved the way for by lessening its military presence in northeastern Syria. The president is now trying to use economic pressure. The White House announced sanctions yesterday.

With all of this going on, it is important to remember that Turkey is a NATO ally. Admiral James Stavridis served as NATO's supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013. He's on the line with me. Good morning, sir.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So Vice President Mike Pence is reportedly headed to the region to broker a cease-fire. What can he do?

STAVRIDIS: He ought to do three things. First and foremost, he ought to be addressing the Turkish incursion into Syria through NATO. He ought to be bringing the enormous weight of the other 28 nations of NATO - besides Turkey - who all uniformly object to this activity.

No. 2, he ought to use his personal offices. And I think it is a good move sending, let's say, the second-highest official in the current administration over there. He can walk in the door in any office over there, and the Turks appreciate that kind of high-level engagement.

And No. 3, he ought to say to the Turks, this is an untenable situation. If it continues, the United States will strongly consider these economic sanctions that you just mentioned. Boy, I hope we don't have to go there. But hopefully, he can get some traction immediately because the situation cannot continue as it is.

KING: You've said bring the full weight of NATO to bear. What can NATO do? What kind of pressure can they apply?

STAVRIDIS: Because of the mass and scale, for example, of the NATO economies - we tend to forget this. We think of NATO as a purely military...

KING: Yeah.

STAVRIDIS: ...Organization, but these are 29 nations that represent 53% of the world's GDP. They are an enormous economic component, a big, big sanction-generating machine that can brought to bear.

Secondly, the Turks highly value their stature as the second-largest army in NATO. They defend the longest land - single land border in NATO. And they also are deeply ingrained in the NATO command structure. High level military officers go back and forth between Turkey and the rest of the alliance, so there are military connections, economic connections and political connections. So look not only for the U.S. to work this, but look for the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, former prime minister of Norway, to be engaged as well.

KING: The White House says it will impose sanctions. And I wonder - if the White House goes it alone - as we've been seeing increasingly with this administration - are sanctions likely to work if they're just coming from the United States?

STAVRIDIS: I don't think so and all the more reason we have to work this through NATO channels. And I would say also an important component could be EU channels. So European Union is a whole separate organization, although there's a great deal of overlap, obviously, between the two.

And then thirdly, we ought to remember that Turkey values its trading relationships through the Arab world. So Egypt, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia - they can be part of this as well. So as is so often the case, Noel, if we can get this out of the channel of U.S. versus X - you know, U.S. versus North Korea, U.S. versus Turkey, U.S. versus Russia - and get it instead into a multilateral framework, we just have a much higher set of possible outcomes that we're going to like as opposed to trying to push things through unilaterally.

KING: OK. Let me talk to you about a relatively recent development. The Kurds are accepting help from Syrian government forces. Is there concern about Syrian troops meeting Turkish troops on the battlefield, so to speak, and these two countries going to war?

STAVRIDIS: Yes, and this is exactly why we have got to try and get a situation resolved before we have a NATO ally coming back to NATO and saying, hey, I've gotten the alliance into a war with Syria.

And by the way, Noel, you know this. Who is the overarching figure here? It's Vladimir Putin. So these are not just Syrian troops potentially Turkey could engage with. These are Russian troops on the ground. You could have - and this is the dark end of the spectrum - but you could have NATO Turkish troops engaging with not only Syrians but Russian troops. Boy, is that not where we want to be right now.

And by the way, let me make a quick point, which is that to help resolve this - and what has helped create this, frankly - is the withdrawal of the U.S. troops. And I just want to remind the listeners that we're not talking about 150,000 troops here. We're not talking - as I commanded in Afghanistan as supreme allied commander. We're not talking 185,000 troops as we had in Iraq at peak. This is 2,000 to 3,000 troops. But big doors can swing on small hinges. Pulling them out at exactly the wrong moment has helped precipitate this crisis. And we haven't even touched on the resurgence of ISIS that I think we're going to see also as a result.

KING: Let me ask you a last question. I know that you've been talking to U.S. troops who've been deployed in the region about this decision to pull them out. What are they telling you?

STAVRIDIS: Let me - I've heard from over a dozen, mostly special forces. And one that really sticks in my mind sent me an email saying, Admiral, how can this be happening? I fought alongside these Kurds. I had tea with these Kurds. I visited their families. My Kurdish translator saved the life of one of my fellow soldiers. These are real personal relationships that are being shattered along with all the geostrategic things we've mentioned this morning.

KING: Admiral James Stavridis, author of "Sailing True North: Ten Admirals And The Voyage Of Character," thank you so much.

STAVRIDIS: Pleasure being with you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.