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Turkey Launches Bombing Campaign Against ISIS, PKK Bases


Now let's ask what Turkey really wants out of its fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. We reported last week that Turkey has finally intensified its efforts. Turkish warplanes have targeted the group holding territory in neighboring Syria and Iraq, which is more than Turkey was willing to do before. NPR's Alice Fordham has been covering this story for a long time. She's based in Beirut. Hi, Alice.


INSKEEP: So how does Turkish involvement look different over the weekend than it did a weekend or a month or a year before?

FORDHAM: Right. It has continued to step up the campaign against ISIS as per the announcements last week, after it announced those airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria on Friday. We've also heard from inside Syria that Turkey is shelling ISIS positions there from the ground. And the government says it's arrested hundreds of people suspected of ties to terror organizations - over 800 in the last couple days, which is likely to be welcomed as Turkey has, you know, long been accused of not doing enough to prevent extremists traveling into Syria and not cracking down hard enough on extremist groups.

INSKEEP: So arrests inside Turkey, airstrikes outside of Turkey. What else might Turkey do?

FORDHAM: Well, one statement over the weekend did attract a lot of attention. The Turkish foreign minister was reported in a semi-official news agency saying the elimination of ISIS in Syria and Iraq would automatically lead to the formation of safe zones there. And this idea is something that Turkish officials have referred to previously - places within Syria that millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and in other neighboring countries could live in safely.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning they would be safe from the ongoing civil war. If ISIS were cleared out, there'd be a place to put them other than neighboring countries.

FORDHAM: Right, exactly, so it's easy to say. How you actually do it is something that has been discussed for the last four years, during the course of the war. Just a couple months ago, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and General Martin Dempsey, general of the joint chiefs of staff, testified in a hearing that they had been planning for just such a contingency with European and with Turkish officials. And in the course of that discussion - which was quite detailed - they implied that safe zones would be a really heavy lift for the American military alone but feasible with strong regional partners. So maybe now Turkey has stepped up - that possibility is a less remote one.

INSKEEP: Well, that gets now to that question of why it is that Turkey has stepped up now in a way that it did not in previous years. What exactly is happening here? What really is happening here?

FORDHAM: Well, I think that it certainly is the case that Turkey is threatened by the extremists in Syria on its border in a way that it hasn't been before, and that it's keen to target them. But in fact, since that first air raid on ISIS was announced in Syria on Friday by Turkey, it hasn't announced any of the raids on ISIS. And it has announced two sets of raids on its regional enemies - a Kurdish group called the PKK in northern Iraq.

Now, the PKK is declared a terror group by Turkey and by the United States, but it has been very active in fighting against ISIS. And it also is closely allied with the Kurdish groups in Syria who the United States has described as effective forces on the ground and who have been protected with airstrikes. So the situation has become complicated because although the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has gained a more active ally in Turkey - that ally is also bombing another group that you could describe as a de facto ally.

INSKEEP: So there's some evidence Turkey is taking advantage of the situation to follow its own agenda?

FORDHAM: Yeah, and that's a product of complicated regional dynamics and also for Turkish election. Inside Turkey there has been some consternation within the ruling party and a very strong showing by Kurdish groups in a recent election and this crackdown could be a result of that.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. Thanks very much.

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

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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