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How Does Turkey's Offensive In Syria Fit Into Its Broader Agenda?


The U.S.-brokered cease-fire in northern Syria ends today. Meanwhile, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to talk about the crisis. Erdogan launched a military offensive in northern Syria about two weeks ago with the stated goal of clearing Kurdish fighters from the area. Turkey also wants to resettle about 2 million Syrian refugees there who currently are living in Turkey.

With me now is Douglas Silliman. He's president of the Arab Gulf States Institute here in Washington, D.C. From 2008 to 2011, he served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. He's also a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait. Good morning, Ambassador.

DOUGLAS SILLIMAN: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So how do Erdogan's actions on Syria fit into his broader agenda for Turkey? What does he want for his country?

SILLIMAN: I think basically what Erdogan wants is to prevent the emergence in eastern Syria of any strong or unified Kurdish governing structure. And as long as American troops were there with the Syrian Democratic Forces, especially up along the border, it was very difficult for him to go against them militarily because a NATO ally was working with the SDF. He has a secondary goal, however, of preventing physical and political connections between Syrian Kurds who live in the west of Syria near Idlib and north of Aleppo and the east of Syria, the ones we're talking about here. And maybe finally it's almost always good politics in Turkey to counterpose Turkish nationalism against Kurds and the very real PKK terrorist threat that has been going on for the past three decades in Turkey. So this also gives him a domestic political bump against his enemies by showing that he is strong against a potential Kurdish terrorist enemy.

KING: And how about this meeting between Erdogan and Putin today? What's the relationship like at this point between Turkey and Russia?

SILLIMAN: Well, Erdogan has been working for most of the past decade on expanding Turkey's relations in addition to those of his traditional allies - the United States, NATO and Europe. Erdogan sees himself as an emerging regional and world leader. But when I was in Turkey in 2010, Erdogan signed with Putin and worked with a Russian company to build Turkey's first nuclear power plant, which is still not finished. But there has also been - have been attempts to expand the places from which Turkey buys defense equipment - the S-400 air defense missiles from Russia. Turkey wants to see itself as no longer completely tied to the West and wants to look to the east and to the south as well for allies and expansion of its economic, political and military influence.

KING: And does the United States need to be worried about that?

SILLIMAN: To the extent that the United States depends upon Turkey as being only a traditional NATO ally, it is an issue for the United States. Expanding to the east to Russia, to China, to the south into the Arab world doesn't necessarily mean that Turkey cannot be - perform the goals that it has or the things that it has done within the NATO alliance. But it will mean that Turkey will be calibrating its domestic interests and its foreign policy interests and security interests differently than it has in the past. So the United States needs to make sure that we know what we want from Turkey and Turkey and the NATO alliance and economically and then try to use our influence to bring Erdogan to that conclusion as well.

KING: How could Russia's involvement here affect U.S. foreign policy in the region?

SILLIMAN: Russia's foreign policy is becoming more aggressive in the Middle East. Especially now in Syria with the departure of U.S. forces, Russia has already played a large role in keeping the Assad regime in power in Damascus. They have been actively working with the Syrian regime, with the Iranians and Iranian proxies in eastern Syria. And what I expect as American forces withdraw as the Turks go in, you will see an expansion of Russian influence, Russian participation with the Syrian regime into this territory that the Kurds had hoped to control in eastern Syria.

KING: Former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey Douglas Silliman, thanks so much for being here.

SILLIMAN: Thank you very much.

KING: All right. I want to bring in NPR's Pentagon reporter, Tom Bowman. Tom, hi. How are you doing?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good. Hey, Noel.

KING: OK. So U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is suggesting that the United States might leave what he called a residual force in northern Syria. Is there some sense now that President Trump is going to keep troops there?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems that way. Now, of course, most of the U.S. troops are leaving, many heading into Iraq. But President Trump at a Cabinet meeting said that keeping troops in Syria was not necessary, quote, "other than that we secure the oil." And Defense Secretary Mark Esper picked up on that during a trip overseas, saying they want to keep some troops there to deny access to those oil fields to ISIS and others. Now, Noel, the oil fields are not up in the area where Turkish militia groups are creating a safe zone but down in the southern area where oil fields are currently being secured by Kurdish forces with help from the U.S. And there are estimates that maybe a couple of hundred American troops will remain out of the total number of a thousand that were in Syria, again, to secure these oil fields.

KING: Just to clarify very quickly - the oil fields, it sounds like you're saying, are not under threat from ISIS fighters despite the suggestion.

BOWMAN: Well, that's right, not at this point. Frankly, it was Russian mercenaries, not ISIS, that tried to grab these oil fields early last year. Of course, Russia is allied with the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad. Now, I was in Syria at the time talking with a Kurdish commander about all this. Some 500 Russian mercenaries, some firing artillery toward an American Kurdish base, were moving towards these oil fields. And the Kurdish commander, General Hassan (ph), told us a Russian military officer denied any Russian involvement. Here's General Hassan talking through an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We are sure they know that - I mean Russia - but they are denied. They say we don't have any force there. We are not involving in that fighting.

BOWMAN: Now, those Russian mercenaries, as they were moving towards the oil fields, were hit by American airstrikes and withdrew. Some 250 of those Russian mercenaries were killed. And the Kurdish commander then said the Russian officer called him and asked if they could come and pick up their dead.

KING: Wow. Tom, a last question for you. If Kurdish allies of the United States are not focused on ISIS, what does that mean about the future of ISIS in that region?

BOWMAN: Well, Defense Secretary Esper is trying to figure out a new plan to fight ISIS. Some American troops based in Iraq could mount raids into Syria to go after ISIS. There could be airstrikes. And Secretary Esper is also going to a NATO meeting in Brussels later this week to talk with allies about the way ahead to fight ISIS.

KING: NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

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

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