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Turkey And NATO Members Face Off Over Kurdish Fighters In Syria


The most divisive member in NATO, as the alliance was meeting for a 70th anniversary meeting in London this week, has not been the United States for a change. It has been Turkey. But this morning, it sounds like that country has backed off a plan that might have divided the military alliance. And joining us to talk about that from Istanbul is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Hi there, Peter.


GREENE: OK. So this was causing some real tensions. What exactly was Turkey demanding, and why were they demanding it?

KENYON: Well, Turkey wanted recognition from NATO that its fight that's been going on for some time now against Syrian YPG Kurdish militiamen in northern Syria is really a part of the global fight against terrorism. This highlights a big split between Western officials and Turkey. Western officials see the YPG as allies in the fight against ISIS. They fought bravely in Syria and seized territory back from Islamic State forces. Turkey, on the other hand, sees them as terrorists aligned with this other Kurdish militant group, the PKK, that Turkey's been fighting for decades. And here's - to highlight the split, Turkey, E.U. and the U.S., they all agree the PKK is a terrorist group but not the YPG. So President Erdogan had been threatening to hold up this Baltic and Polish defense plan and disrupt the NATO summit unless he got the recognition he was seeking.

GREENE: So this is a tension that's been simmering for some time. We've been talking about that Turkey has been going after Kurdish fighters who have been working alongside the United States, which was a real problem and gotten really - just coming to the forefront at this summit meeting. Any idea why Erdogan suddenly backed off this morning?

KENYON: There's no final answer, no complete answer yet, but there was a 15-minute pull-aside meeting between Erdogan and President Donald Trump. The announcement of Turkey dropping its threat to block the Baltic plan came sometime after that meeting. And officials at the same time made clear there was no discussion of the YPG Kurdish fighters or Turkey's fight against them. So it would seem that there may be some reason to believe that that meeting had something to do with this change of heart.

GREENE: Oh, this is so interesting because while other NATO countries were criticizing Erdogan over this, President Trump was not doing so much of that, and he's been embracing Erdogan more than other NATO allies recently, right?

KENYON: He certainly has, and that did not change today. He had this meeting, and afterwards, he talked about it, said they discussed everything. He called it a good meeting. He said, we discussed Syria, we discussed the Kurds, we're getting along very well. The border and the safe zone are working out well, he said. And Trump said he gives a lot of credit to Turkey for that. The cease-fire is holding, he said, and people are surprised. He went on to say maybe, though, someday they'll give me - meaning Trump - credit for that. He then went on to repeat some of the other things he's been saying - this has been a difficult place, this border, for 100 years. He was glad he'd ordered U.S. forces moved out of the way, even though they are still there guarding oil.

So, yes, the warm relations between Trump and Erdogan continue. And if there is something else to happen as a result of that meeting and the other things that they discussed, perhaps we'll find out about that in the coming days and weeks.

GREENE: Yeah. One thing we'll find out about is we'll have to watch to see if President Trump claims some kind of credit for easing this tension and how other NATO countries respond to that. OK. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul following all of this for us. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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