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U.S. Allies Alarmed On First Day Of Turkish Offensive In Kurdish-Controlled Syria


U.S. officials are closely watching the Turkish offensive into northern Syria. They're worried that the Kurds, who are a U.S. ally, are under attack. After a day of airstrikes, Turkey says its troops have crossed the border. And the offensive comes after President Trump, in a call with the Turkish president, agreed to relocate the small number of U.S. forces who were in the path. But he had this response today when asked if Turkey might wipe out the Kurds.


PRES DONALD TRUMP: I will wipe out his economy if that happens.

CORNISH: Now, we're going to get some sense of how this offensive is taking shape. U.S. officials have been speaking with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He joins us now.

Tom, I'd like to start off with the basics. You have the Turkish forces amassed along the border with Syria, striking areas controlled by Kurdish militias. What's behind this? Why are they doing this? And how intense has it gotten?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, this argument has gone on for years now between the U.S. and Turkey. Now, Turkey sees these Kurdish fighters in Syria as allied with Kurdish militants inside Turkey who are fighting the Turkish government. But these Kurdish fighters are also working with the U.S. to go after ISIS. They've been very strong fighters, very staunch fighters. They've lost thousands of Kurdish fighters over the past number of years. And again, this is what's led to it. This argument has gone on for a number of years now. So Turkey's going in to basically push these Kurdish fighters away from the border area. Now, Turkey just announced that they've started their ground operation into Syria, and this comes after a number of Syrian towns and villages have come under Turkish airstrikes, artillery barrages. And there are already some civilians who have been killed in these attacks and dozens wounded. Also, some of these strikes are near the town of Kobani. And U.S. troops are stationed nearby but I'm told not too close to any of these strikes.

CORNISH: There's been a lot of opposition to this move by the president. I want to play some tape of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He was speaking on "Fox & Friends" today.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: And I will say this to the president. It would be hard to protect America without allies over there, and the Kurds have been good allies. And when Turkey goes into Syria, they're not going in to fight ISIS. They're going in to kill the Kurds.

CORNISH: Tom, President Trump has also issued a statement from the White House. What was his message to Turkey?

BOWMAN: Right. He did put out a statement tonight. He said that the United States, quote, "does not endorse this attack," end of quote. He called the operation by Turkey a bad idea. He said Turkey interestingly has committed to protecting civilians and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place and also ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison. Now, here's a problem with all of that. Civilians are leaving now in large numbers from these towns that have come under Turkish attack, so there's a potential crisis right there. Again, some civilians have been killed, dozens wounded by these Turkish attacks, so that's not ensuring their safety. And the military officers I talked with doubt Turkey will either go after ISIS or hold them as prisoners. And the Kurds may abandon these prisoners if this ground operation by Turkey gets more and more tense. They'll just move away from the prisons and leave these folks unguarded, these ISIS fighters.

CORNISH: What are some of the other concerns from defense officials?

BOWMAN: Well, one of the big concerns is a bloody battle between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the Kurds, a U.S. ally against ISIS. It could just get worse and worse. One official I spoke with today said he thinks it's going to get a lot worse - also, a possible ISIS resurgence if the Kurds are moving toward fighting Turkey and not going after ISIS. Already, we've seen some ISIS suicide bombings taking advantage of this situation. And also, people say it could embolden Russia and Iranian forces who are supporting the Syrian government. They could take over territory held by the Kurds, including oilfields. So there are a number of concerns by U.S. officials.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thanks for your reporting.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.