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U.S. To Arm Kurdish Fighters In Syria Despite Turkey's Objection


You know, last fall I remember talking to Mehdi Eker, a top politician in Turkey who is close to that country's president. He said he was concerned that NATO countries might be arming militias that were turning those NATO weapons on a NATO country, Turkey, which brings us to President Trump's decision to arm the YPG. This is a Syrian Kurdish group that is helping to fight ISIS. But Turkey, a NATO member, considers them to be terrorists. And let's talk this through with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's in Istanbul. Peter, good morning.


GREENE: So could this be a real dent in - in U.S.-Turkish relations?

KENYON: Well, it's a longstanding relationship. But this certainly puts another strain on it. Here in Turkey, it's seen as a slap in the face of the government. This was the No. 1 demand Turkey was making of the Trump administration. Please cut ties with these Kurdish fighters. We've got a real problem with them.

President Erdogan kept saying, you know, we couldn't get through to Obama's people, but now we expect better from Trump. But instead, the U.S. is not only sticking with the Kurdish YPG in Syria; they're going to directly arm them - small arms, reportedly, but definitely not what Turkey was hoping to hear.

GREENE: Well, can you just give us the background here and remind us why Turks are so upset and so worried about the United States working with this group, the YPG?

KENYON: Yeah. They hate the YPG Kurdish fighters because they see them as allied, even an extension of, Turkey's own Kurdish militants. This is a group they've been fighting, you know, since the 1980s.

GREENE: Well, is - do the Turks have a point about that? I mean, is - they - you know, Turkey uses the term terrorist group. Do they have an argument there?

KENYON: Yeah. Well, there's pretty clear evidence that there is a linkage between the YPG in Syria and the Kurdish fighters inside Turkey. But Washington says, OK, yes, those Kurdish fighters in Turkey are terrorists. We agree. But we don't agree about the Syrian Kurds - why? - frankly because they need them on the ground. They're good fighters against ISIS. Turkey...

GREENE: Oh, I...

KENYON: ...Keeps saying you can't use one terrorist group to fight another, hasn't been shy about showing its displeasure. I mean, just recently, Turkey was launching airstrikes against the YPG in Syria, right next to where U.S. allies were, giving them very short notice. So obviously, this is something taken really seriously here.

GREENE: OK. And very complicated, with arms being fired from Turkey against this group. So what has - what has the reaction been so far to this decision in Turkey?

KENYON: Well, it's been negative but officially somewhat muted, you'd have to say. They left it to a deputy prime minister to say it's unacceptable, this decision. But he then limits himself to hoping Washington will end its ties with the YPG. It kind of suggests to some people the Turks knew in advance this was coming. As a matter of fact, three Turkish officials are in Washington. They're trying to prepare for Erdogan's upcoming visit.

Now, on social media, there's been a much stronger reaction. Both pro-government and opposition posters to Twitter are condemning the U.S. for this. They call it a betrayal, and some are pointing out it shows how powerless Turkey really is on the world stage despite its strategic location.

GREENE: I mean, this is amazing, though, that this is all happening and being discussed ahead of a visit by President Erdogan...


GREENE: ...To Washington. I mean, President Trump just recently congratulated Erdogan for that referendum in Turkey. Does that now change this whole visit in Washington?

KENYON: Well, certainly in the short term, Erdogan's going to be under some pressure to either get tough with the Americans - maybe, some speculate, bring home a concession from Washington on something else. But I reached out for the bigger picture to Turkey analyst Sinan Ulgen. He's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He says this is going to make anti-American feelings in Turkey worse than they already are. But in the end, Erdogan really doesn't have very many options. He's not likely to dismantle this Turkey-U.S. relationship now, when Turkey's facing all these problems in the region that it, frankly, needs America's help with.

GREENE: Speaking to NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is in Istanbul. Peter, thanks as always.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.