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Turkey Launches Offensive Against Kurds In Northern Syria


Alliances in the Syrian civil war are shifting again. Up until this week, U.S. forces were working with Kurdish troops to fight ISIS in Syria. Then President Trump moved U.S. troops out of the border area between Syria and Turkey, essentially clearing the way for Turkey to launch its own offensive on those very same Kurds. Airstrikes began yesterday, and Kurdish activists are reporting casualties and heavy fighting. The U.N. Security Council is meeting today on the matter.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is reporting from Iraq near the border with Syria and joins us now. Daniel, I understand Turkey's President Erdogan has made remarks today defending the attack. What did he say exactly?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: He gave a quite defiant speech, and he warned Europe not to criticize Turkey's military operation. He said, hey, EU, if you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, he said, it will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you. And he's talking about the Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

Erdogan also claimed that more than a hundred, quote, "terrorists" were killed in the Turkish operation so far, although the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that that number is actually much lower. It's reporting around a dozen Kurdish-led forces killed and eight civilians killed, too - at least.

MARTIN: You have been talking to people fleeing the area that's been hardest hit by the fighting. What are they telling you?

ESTRIN: Well, our team of NPR reporters, Lama Al-Arian and Sangar Khaleel, were at the Iraqi border crossing with Syria right at the crossing today. And they met one woman who was lucky enough to come across the border.

She has European residency papers, so she was allowed through. She said she didn't sleep at all during the night from the sounds of the bombing. And she said that she saw hundreds of Kurdish civilians at the border crossing who really wanted to leave, but they're not being allowed to cross.

And many Western aid workers also gathering at the border that she thought we're also trying to cross. And that site of Western aid workers leaving Syria was causing a lot of panic among Kurdish residents. And then we also spoke with a 27 - Kurdish...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVIST: I don't know what to (unintelligible). But yeah, a person who is tweeting from, like, thousands of kilometers away from me, deciding about my people, for me, is unacceptable.

ESTRIN: And that's the voice of a 27-year-old Kurdish activist we spoke with. She fled her home in a border area. And she said that she was feeling abandoned by President Trump.

MARTIN: So let's talk about President Trump. He's gotten a lot of criticism, actually, here at home for this decision to move U.S. troops out of this area which then allowed Turkey to move in. His most strident supporters say doing this was a mistake. It's going to embolden ISIS. It's a betrayal of the Kurds. And yet President Trump has not been deterred, right?

ESTRIN: Well, even - yes - yesterday he sent, I think, mixed signals about his position on the Kurds. Trump said the Kurds are fighting for us, yes, meaning that the Kurds have fought with the U.S. against ISIS. But Trump said, but they're fighting for their land, and, hey, they didn't help us in the Second World War, and they didn't help us with Normandy.

MARTIN: Part of the concern about ISIS getting emboldened through this is because the Kurds have been guarding a lot of really high-profile ISIS detainees. And now there are reports that the U.S. has taken custody of these detainees. What more can you tell us about that?

ESTRIN: Well, a big concern here is the jails where ISIS prisoners are kept. Kurdish forces are the prison guards, and Kurdish forces have basically threatened that they may need to abandon these jails in order to go fight Turkey, and that could let ISIS prisoners run free.

So Trump tweeted that in the case - in case that happens - if the Kurds or the Turkey - or Turkey loses control, he said, high-profile detainees, two of them are in U.S. custody. He's talking about two British men, part of a group sort of known as the Beatles, accused of being responsible for beheading American journalists.

MARTIN: Right. Just briefly, do we know what Turkey's end goal is here?

ESTRIN: Turkey says it wants to clear the area of Kurdish forces and set up what it's calling a safe zone. Turkey isn't saying how much land they're trying to seize, how long they intend this operation to last, though.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from on the ground near the Syrian border. Thanks, Daniel.

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

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.