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Kurdish forces hope U.S. allies will convince Turkey to stop airstrikes


The U.S. still has several hundred troops in northeastern Syria. And it has allies, mostly Kurdish militias, that have done a lot of the fighting against ISIS. But another U.S. ally, Turkey, has been conducting airstrikes against those militias. It says they're linked to Kurds in Turkey who have staged attacks. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports on the standoff and how the U.S. military is in the middle.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: For almost a month now, Turkish troops have hit towns and villages in northeast Syria with airstrikes and artillery, with Kurds there asking for help.


MAZLOUM ABDI: (Speaking Kurdish).

SHERLOCK: Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that controls this region in Syria, says the fire has been relentless. He was making his case via Zoom to the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.


ABDI: (Speaking Kurdish).

SHERLOCK: This is only the latest in a series of offensives by the native country against the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in northeast Syria. And over the course of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has taken control of several pockets of northern Syria.

ARUN LUND: Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has long wanted to go into Syria and seize more territory.

SHERLOCK: Arun Lund, an analyst with Century International, a U.S. think tank, says the Turkish government fights Kurdish groups in its own country and views Kurdish leaders in northeast Syria as a threat. This latest round of attacks follows an explosion last month on a busy shopping street in Istanbul that killed several people and wounded dozens. The Turkish government blamed the bombing on the Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurds in Syria. They deny any involvement. Lund believes Turkey's President Erdogan may have another incentive for escalating the conflict with militias in northeast Syria.

LUND: There's an election coming in Turkey.

SHERLOCK: One of the main issues of the election is the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in the country for a decade.

LUND: Erdogan has been saying that we should seize these areas along the Turkish border in Syria to create safe zones or peace corridors.

SHERLOCK: And Turkey would send refugees to there.

LUND: That's sort of the strategy that - he dangles this as his solution to the refugee crisis.

SHERLOCK: But the battles are taking place close to U.S. troops and Russian forces.

MATTHEW MCFARLANE: The battlespace in Syria is really one of the most dynamic, crowded and contested military operating environments in the world.

SHERLOCK: That's Major General Matthew McFarlane, who heads the U.S.-led coalition that fights ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in an interview. In the face of the Turkish offensive, the U.S.-backed SDF called on Washington to intervene and strongly pressure Turkey to end the onslaught. The U.S. carries out joint patrols with the Kurds in Syria against ISIS, but it wants to avoid being drawn into any conflict with Turkey. McFarlane says ISIS remains the U.S.' main focus.

MCFARLANE: We know our mission, and that's what this coalition is focused on.

SHERLOCK: White House officials have stepped up their public opposition to Turkey's threats of a ground invasion in Syria. And in recent days, Turkey's rhetoric has lessened. But the issues that led to these attacks remain unresolved. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.