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Mattis Seeks To Calm Nervous Ally In Turkey


With battles against ISIS grinding on in both Iraq and Syria, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been traveling in the region, praising the anti-ISIS coalition and meeting with uneasy allies. Perhaps none is more uneasy than Turkey. Mattis, yesterday, sought to reassure Turkey's president that American backing for Kurdish fighters will not undermine Turkey's security. And to find out if he succeeded in reassuring Turkey, we're joined now by NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Hi, Peter.


CHANG: So how did this meeting go?

KENYON: Well, there wasn't any big show of solidarity. There was no joint statement, no press conference. He was in and out. And that may reflect the fact that it's extremely hard to try and reconcile the two positions on this one big question - the U.S. support for Syrian-Kurdish fighters. You know, this gets a little complicated, but here goes. The U.S. really needs those Syrian Kurds in the battle against ISIS. They're good fighters, battle-hardened. They're hard to replace. But Turkey says, wait. These people are ideologically aligned with the PKK, the Kurdish militants, here in Turkey that we've been fighting for 30 years. You can't use one terrorist group to fight another.

So when Turkey sees its U.S. ally arming the Syrian Kurds, they say, this is very bad news for us. Those weapons are ultimately going to be used against Turkish security forces or even maybe civilians. Now, Secretary Mattis is the latest American official to come here to try and assure the Turks, no, that's not going to happen. We're going to get the serial numbers, get all those weapons back. And the Turkish officials are saying, well, we don't believe that. We've seen it happen before in Iraq, and we don't think you're going to be able to succeed in doing that. So that's the kind of back and forth that we probably heard.

CHANG: Was there anything the two sides could agree on?

KENYON: There was, yes, actually. And this also involves Kurds - the ones over in northern Iraq. They're planning a big political referendum next month on independence for this Kurdish area. Both Turkey and the U.S. agree that's not a good idea, especially at this moment. It's a terrible idea, they say. Baghdad and Iran couldn't agree more, by the way. They all say this referendum could destabilize Iraq. It could even be an attempt to begin to break up the country.

So there's been a lot of talk about protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria. But that is rhetoric that's lined up. It's not clear it's having much effect because the Iraqi Kurds say, well, we're not really worried about what you say. We're going ahead with this vote anyway.

CHANG: Right. Well, this visit by Mattis comes after a visit to Turkey by a top general from Iran.

KENYON: That's right.

CHANG: And I'm just wondering, is that what prompted the U.S. visit? Is the White House concerned that Ankara is somehow distancing itself from the U.S. and moving closer to Iran and Russia?

KENYON: Well, I'm not sure that's what prompted this particular leg of this trip by the secretary of defense. But certainly, there is concern about that issue in general. I mean, that visit by General Bagheri, the Iranian chief of staff, to Turkey was the first such visit since the revolution in 1979 in Iran. So that was a pretty big deal. And Turkey has been working more with Iran and with Russia, especially on Syria. They've been helping to come up with this plan for de-escalation zones.

And this is part of a pattern in Turkish history. They like to be in the middle of things, playing both sides, not too close to any one side. Economically, there's no question they're tied to the West, and that's where their bread is buttered. That's probably where they're going to be focusing.

CHANG: We're also hearing reports of rising civilian casualties in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS and calls for the U.S. to do more to protect them. What can you tell us about all this?

KENYON: Well, that's right. It's a new report from Amnesty International. They've interviewed survivors who fled Raqqa. They talk about problems from ISIS, of course - booby traps and whatnot - but also endless airstrikes, some of which are from the anti-ISIS coalition. Particular problems include shooting at boats when civilians are trying to flee. The coalition says, well, they could have ISIS weapons on there, so we are going to shoot at the boats. Now, it's hard to say exactly who's killing the most civilians now. It's very complicated. But Amnesty says it's bad now and likely to get worse as the fighting continues.

CHANG: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.

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

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