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Trump Administration To Move U.S. Troops Out Of Northern Syria


Turkey is preparing to move into northern Syria, while the United States is stepping aside. And this represents a key policy shift by the White House.


Turkey's objective here is to clear its border areas of Syrian Kurdish forces. These are forces who fought alongside the United States in recent years, but Turkey is hostile to them. This morning, President Trump tweeted that the United States will, quote, "fight where it is to our benefit and only fight to win." He went on to write, Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out. The president's announcement is renewing fears that the United States is abandoning its Kurdish allies.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following all of this from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


GREENE: OK, so you have ethnic Kurds. They have been among some of the most critical U.S. allies in Syria. But Turkey is suspicious of them, often labeling them as terrorists. How do you have two NATO allies - the U.S. and Turkey - with such different views here?

KENYON: Well, it's partly a matter of history. I mean, since the mid-1980s the Turkish military's been fighting other Kurdish militants from the PKK. That's the Kurdistan Workers Party. Now, these Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border are a distinct group, but they share some of the same ideology. And as far as Turkey's concerned there's no difference. They're all anti-Turkish terrorists in their view. Turkey was never happy that the Pentagon partnered with the Syrian Kurds as part of the effort to clear Islamic State's so-called caliphate. And then when President Trump declared victory over ISIS, he said U.S. troops are coming out, leaving these Kurdish fighters in a pretty uncertain position. And now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey says all preparations for a Turkish military operation are in place. He was a bit coy about when exactly it might start. But certainly, the White House statement suggests that it believes Ankara will be going ahead.

GREENE: Can you just remind me what has been happening in this part of Syria? Weren't the United States and Turkey working together, carrying out operations together?

KENYON: Yes, absolutely. There've been three joint patrols so far. There's been ongoing talks about creating a safe zone in northern Syria, which is all well and good. But the differences are showing up now. Turkey wants that zone to be bigger than the U.S. envisioned. Turkey wants it 20 miles deep, 300 miles wide. That would be a pretty major commitment to take and, more importantly, hold that kind of territory. And now while, as you said, the armed forces of America aren't supporting this Turkish operation, they're also not de facto defending the Syrian Kurdish fighters. They'll have to fend for themselves. And the Kurdish-led Syrian defense forces say this is going to have a greatly negative impact on the fight against Islamic State.

GREENE: And why have we reached this moment now? What's the timing here?

KENYON: Well, from the Turkish point of view, besides the perceived threat from Kurdish fighters across the border, there's been pressure building domestically here in Turkey for the government to do something about 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. That's the official number anyway. Turkey's president says as many as 2 million could be relocated to northern Syria if and when it's safe. And as to when that would happen, Erdogan's been a bit coy. He said, we might just appear one night.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon following all of this for us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks as always.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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