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Turkish Assault In Northern Syria Prompts Concerns Of A New Humanitarian Crisis


Turkey pounded northern Syria with airstrikes and ground troops today.


SHAPIRO: The assault only started after President Trump withdrew U.S. troops from parts of the region. The Turks are trying to clear out Kurdish forces, forces Turkey calls terrorists but which have been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. Many world leaders condemned these attacks, which have fueled concerns of a new humanitarian crisis.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in southern Turkey and joins us now. Hi, Peter.


SHAPIRO: How close to the fighting are you, and what have you seen today?

KENYON: Well, I spent a good part of the day on a rise overlooking Turkey's border with Syria - (inaudible) feature just be seen was thick plumes of smoke rising as another day of fighting played out. There was even some fire coming the other way. The Turkish town of Akcakale was hit by mortar fire. Turkish media say at least three people were killed. It caused a little bit of panic. So shells were flying in both directions today, but most of the attacking, it has to be said, is being done by Turkey, targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters it sees as terrorists, despite their having fought alongside the U.S. against ISIS.

After those mortars landed on the Turkish side, there was a fierce barrage that erupted in the other direction, and the plumes of smoke, of course, grew darker and larger. This is now an air and ground operation showing no sign of quickly stopping.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell how far into Syria Turkish forces have gone?

KENYON: Well, it's difficult to be precise, but a U.S. official tells NPR that so far, the Turks have stayed within the almost 20-mile area. They want to become a northern Syria safe zone that's 20 miles deep. The Turkish Defense Ministry, meanwhile, says they have killed more than 170 of the enemy. That number could not be confirmed.

Kurdish sources said a number of the Turkish attacks targeted civilian areas. Turkey's aim is to get this 20-mile-deep area and stretch it 300 miles wide all the way to the Iraqi border. It's an operation that has drawn widespread criticism, calls for restraint internationally. The humanitarian group the International Rescue Committee says more than 64,000 people have been displaced so far, and that number is likely to rise.

SHAPIRO: Well, with all the international criticism of this assault, Turkey's president gave a pretty defiant speech today justifying his actions. What did he say?

KENYON: Well, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on this operation. He called it a justified counterterrorist move - also a means of creating space to return a million or more Syrian refugees to their homeland. Erdogan was especially critical of European countries, many of which resisted taking in Syrian refugees while Turkey was absorbing more than 3.5 million. Here's a bit of what he said.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Now, here Erdogan is basically saying, hey, European Union, pull yourself together here. If you try to label this operation an occupation, we'll just open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way. So clearly, Turkey's president is showing no sign of responding to international pressure.

SHAPIRO: This assault by Turkey on the Kurds only came after President Trump said he was withdrawing U.S. forces from some parts of the border. Why is this happening now?

KENYON: Well, Trump's decision to abruptly move U.S. forces definitely cleared the way for this attack - at least that's what people here believe. Erdogan had no desire to hit troops from another NATO country. And Trump's desire to disentangle the U.S. from Mideast conflicts (inaudible) operation was a go and at least tacitly accepted, although Trump denies giving Erdogan any kind of a green light.

SHAPIRO: Southern Turkey, as you mentioned, has hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of Syrian refugees. What is the reaction among them to what's going on?

KENYON: Yes - mixed feelings. I did meet some of them today. One in particular close to the border - a large extended family, swarm of children, parents, assorted aunts and other relatives - they all crowded around as the father explained they'd come from just across the border in Syria. Other families, though, (inaudible) have any chance to move away or taking it. And I think the movement of displaced people, where they wind up, the risks they face - that'll be an important part of this story.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Sanliurfa, Turkey, near the border with Syria. Thank you.

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

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