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U.S. Relationship With Turkey A Balancing Act In Fight Against ISIS


The fight against ISIS seemed to get a recent boost when Turkey allowed U.S. jets to fly from its air bases. But that deal was followed with an unexpected turn. Turkey is now conducting its own airstrikes against another group that has been fighting ISIS very effectively. Those are ethnic Kurds. NPR's Alice Fordham has been reporting on how this is playing out and joins us now. And Alice, let's just start with, why is it so hard for the U.S. to get the Turks and the Kurds to be on board with the war against ISIS?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, Turkey and the Kurds have a really troubled history, but they both have something the United States wants. The Kurds are key fighters in the war against ISIS, and the Turks, as you say, have these bases that the United States needs to launch its airstrikes. And it wants Turkey to stop jihadi foreign fighters from going into Syria.

So what's happening is the U.S. is kind of doing a balancing act between different allies. It has strengthened its relationship with Turkey. It's agreed to cooperate more closely in the war against ISIS. But the United States has, for a year, been working really closely with ethnic Kurds in Syria and in Iraq to fight ISIS. But you have to understand, the Kurds aren't all one group. There's a lot of different Kurdish factions. Some are in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in other places. There are rivalries between them as well.

CORNISH: So which is the group Turkey's conducting their airstrikes against?

FORDHAM: OK, well, they are bombing a group called the PKK. Now, the PKK has been very active in the fight against ISIS. I myself went to a little town in northern Iraq last year, and I spoke to locals and to the official security forces there about how much this guerrilla group, the PKK, had helped push back ISIS from there.

But in fact, the PKK is designated a terror group by Turkey and by the United States. And over decades in Turkey they've been blamed for the deaths of many civilians as well as for security forces. And a couple weeks ago, it's believed that they killed two security forces in the south of Turkey, which Turkey says prompted these airstrikes on the PKK's bases in Iraq, which seems to have dragged the two back into this cycle of violence where Turkey bombs their outposts and the PKK conducts attacks against security forces inside Turkey.

CORNISH: What's the Kurdish response been?

FORDHAM: Well, the PKK themselves are outraged. I spoke to one of their representatives this morning in Northern Iraq, and they said that they blame Turkey for killing nine civilians in a village. Although, Turkey denies this. And they say that this is proof that Turkey supports ISIS, which is a long-term allegation by the Kurds because the PKK say they've been fighting against ISIS, and now Turkey's attacking them.

But as I said, the Kurds are divided, and not all Kurds feel this way. So in Syria, across the border, there's a Kurdish group who really are U.S. allies. I don't know if you remember. Last year, there was a big battle to keep ISIS out of the town of Kobani, and the Syrian Kurds were really a key part of that fight. Now, they're taking a slightly different approach because they have a better relationship with the United States. They say that the Americans have reassured them that they won't be hit by Turkish airstrikes.

CORNISH: This sounds like a serious balancing act. I mean, what are the risks here?

FORDHAM: Absolutely. So Kurdish analysts say particularly, there are worries that the PKK might back off its fight against ISIS, which could let ISIS surge. And if they do a number of attacks inside Turkey, which is at a very sensitive point politically because a Kurdish party did unexpectedly well in recent elections, that could also spark unrest. And in Syria, those Kurdish fighters - the U.S. allies that I was talking about - are really riled by suggestions their turf could be broken up with what the Turks call a safe zone. But in the end, you could argue that they don't have a lot of choice. These people have all got an incentive to work together in a de facto way.

CORNISH: So what are the things that could hold this all together?

FORDHAM: Well, the Kurds know that ISIS represents a big threat, and they need coalition support. The United States needs to launch its planes from inside Turkey. And honestly, Turkey seems to want the Kurds from getting too much influence on the ground. So a kind of troubled, polygamist marriage of convenience could prevail for a while at least.

CORNISH: That's NPR Alice Fordham. Alice, thanks so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.