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World

Turkish Military Casualties In Syria Spell Awkward Relations With Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yesterday was the deadliest day for the Turkish military since it first entered the Syrian conflict in 2016. Thirty-three Turkish soldiers died fighting Syrian forces, forces backed by Russia. Now, this is awkward because Russia and Turkey have enjoyed good relations of late. Now Turkey is trying to figure out how to respond to Russia. It is seeking help from NATO, and it is not at all clear where things go from here. Asli Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She is a longtime Turkish journalist, and she is on the phone now from Istanbul.

Hey there.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Hi; good to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us - let's start with where things stand at the moment. I know the presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke today by phone. Do we know how that went? Do we know where relations stand between Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin?

AYDINTASBAS: We don't know what the conversation was like, but the two have been very careful not to blame each other directly. In fact, I think Turkish officials are avoiding saying this was a strike by Russian air force or by Russian forces. They are putting the blame on the Syrian military, I think, in order to leave sort of room for compromise or for negotiations.

KELLY: Right.

AYDINTASBAS: But my sense, from the silence on the Turkish side tonight after the phone conversation, is that the two leaders are not there yet.

KELLY: I want to ask you, what is the U.S. role here? Turkish President Erdogan also spoke with President Trump by phone today.

AYDINTASBAS: So Erdogan has been desperately trying to enlist Western support in his quest to hold on to Idlib, this last rebel-held enclave in Syria. The problem is, in many ways, he's alienated many of his European partners and NATO partners, certainly.

He has a great relationship with President Trump, but the ask - the Turkish ask is almost too big in the sense that Turkey would like NATO and/or U.S. to be militarily involved, providing some type of a safe zone in Idlib and engaging in some sort of a combative position vis-a-vis Moscow.

KELLY: Right, and I want to stay there with the other player in this very complicated web - NATO. The secretary general of NATO put out a statement today saying the alliance supports Turkey, will continue to support Turkey. Turkey, of course, is a NATO member. But I gather Turkey was hoping for a lot more from NATO.

AYDINTASBAS: Turkey has called an emergency meeting at NATO, and they want to invoke Article V, the famous article from the NATO chapter, which says an attack on any one of the member states is an attack on all.

KELLY: Collective defense.

AYDINTASBAS: Collective defense - but in this case, this attack is taking place in Syria, so there is a bit of a gray area there.

KELLY: We're talking in big strategic terms about alliances. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that there are many, many real people involved; refugees, Syrian refugees now on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. The ones who are inside Turkey, Turkey is now suggesting it may not stop from traveling to the rest of Europe. I am seeing pictures of people trying to make their way to Turkey's borders with Greece, for example. What is the implicit threat here from Turkey?

AYDINTASBAS: It is a move to pressure Europe. Turkey is trying to get Europe to support its position in Syria. And I think the one card it's holding is the fact that Turkey is hosting 3.7 million Syrians and also some people from Afghanistan on top of that. It's a risky gamble because this is not going to go down that well in the European public opinion and certainly with the EU.

But I think, already, we're seeing some refugees that are being taken by buses to the border area - a Greek or a Bulgarian border. And this is not something that applies to people from Idlib. They're on the other side. The border is closed, and they're trapped and camping out in winter conditions and really desperate. Nine-hundred thousand people have been displaced over the past two months. This makes it just about the worst page in a terrible book.

KELLY: Another horrific chapter in what has, as you say, been a very long and horrific war. That is Asli Aydintasbas, Turkish journalist, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, giving us a view from Istanbul.

Thank you.

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