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Turkish President Criticizes U.S. Arming Of Kurds In Syria


In the fight against ISIS in Syria in northern Iraq, Kurdish forces have become critical U.S. allies, so much so that the Trump administration announced that it's sending more weapons and support to Kurds in Syria. Kurds are said to be the largest ethnic group in the world without a home state, and their increasing strength has been unsettling governments in the region. The issue is at the forefront of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit today to the White House.

Denise Natali is a distinguished fellow at the National Defense University, an arm of the Department of Defense. She's here to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

DENISE NATALI: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So at the White House today, President Erdogan criticized the U.S. approach to the Kurds, essentially saying that there's no place for terrorist organizations in the future of the region. Help us understand (laughter) that statement.

NATALI: On the one hand, it's understandable that Turkey or President Erdogan would make that statement because Turkey has been fighting the PKK for about 33 years.

CORNISH: And that's a Kurdish separatist group.

NATALI: And that is a Kurdish separatist group that is the parent organization of the group in Syria that the United States is funding. So in Turkey's perspective, the YPG, the group that we are funding, is an arm, an affiliate of this group it has fighting for 33 years.

CORNISH: Now, the U.S. the EU, has labeled the PKK - these are the Kurdish separatists in Turkey - as a terrorist group. How come we don't feel the same way about the group fighting in Syria?

NATALI: Because they can say that this group here, number one, is a distinct and different organization that is fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That is the other side of the argument. Now, you can go back and forth between these two fundamentally different views, and this is where the problem is - that the United States or its partners can say, we are not part of the PKK, and Turkey and other folks from the region will say they are organically linked. So this is a difference in threat perceptions and one that will continue even after this campaign ends.

CORNISH: So for some background, we know that Kurds are spread throughout the region - Iran, Syria, Iraq, Turkey. And so there are many countries - right? - that are watching their activities closely. But help us understand why the Obama administration had been reluctant to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria.

NATALI: One, they didn't want to aggravate Turkey. But there's the whole issue of arming sub-state actors. I mean we normally work through governments, but we don't have a government in Syria to work with. So there is this concern about our NATO partner Turkey and others pushing back on the issue of arming the Kurds.

CORNISH: You've been watching Kurds in the region for many, many years. Right now, are people looking at what's going on, the diaspora, and thinking that they're making some gains, thinking that this is a key moment for the Kurdish people?

NATALI: Yes, the Kurds are making gains on different levels. The most evident is the territorial gains that they have made since the anti-ISIS campaign. And working alongside the coalition and being effective fighters, they have in Iraq expanded their territories by about 40 percent. In Syria, they have expanded their territories by some say over 180 percent.

But moreover, the Kurds in Syria - they're considered to be affiliated with the PKK. Historically, they were the bad Kurds. There were the good Kurds and the bad Kurds. They have never been given support or recognition by any community. So the really big change has been, for the first time, there's now this other Kurdish group that had been considered the enemy of our ally Turkey - has now been indirectly unintentionally, if you will, elevated, enabled and semi-legitimized internationally. And that - I don't see them taking that back.

CORNISH: Denise Natali is a distinguished fellow at the National Defense University. Thank you so much.

NATALI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.