Washington Wednesday: Turkey, Syria, and NATO

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 4th of December, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

Turkey’s invasion into northeast Syria is not generating the headlines it did six weeks ago. But the fighting there continues. And civilians in the region are still fleeing homes and villages to try to escape the violence. 

Turkey continues to insist it’s simply protecting itself from Kurdish terror groups. And this week the president of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demanded his NATO counterparts abandon their support of the Kurds. These are erstwhile allies who had been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO troops against ISIS.

REICHARD: In an interview between official meetings, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the disagreement over the conflict in Syria.

STOLTENBERG: It’s well known that we have some issues related to how to designate the YPG PYG organization in Syria. There are different views among NATO allies…

And as those different views persist, Turkey continues its military campaign against Kurdish, Christian, and Yazidi communities.

EICHER: We slotted this in for this week’s Washington Wednesday, because this topic certainly touches on the role the United States plays in affecting policy. 

WORLD’s senior editor Mindy Belz recently traveled to northeast Syria to see for herself and for us what’s going on there. And she’s here now, and probably still sorting out what’s morning and what’s evening. But good morning to you, Mindy.

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Good morning, Nick. 

EICHER: I’d like to start with some of your personal experiences from this trip. 

Mindy, let’s talk about the car bombing that you witnessed while staying in Quashmili. Am I saying that right? 

BELZ: That’s right. Quashmili.

EICHER: This was serious: it killed seven; it wounded dozens. 

Tell us about that experience—so out of the ordinary, thank the Lord, for Americans; but sadly a too-common facet of life in northeast Syria.

BELZ: That’s right. And I’ve been in close calls before, but never one that close. I had only been in Syria for a couple of hours and had only been in Quashmili under an hour. So I was still getting my bearings and sitting by a window fronting a street talking to a source on the phone, taking notes, when there was a loud explosion over my shoulder. And it was really not even maybe 40 or 50 yards away. Maybe not that far away. It was the hotel across the street. And it was a car bombing that was set off by remote. 

And quickly the street was in utter chaos. And I realized that I had glass coming in on me. It blew out the windows in the room where I was sitting. It also blew out a glass partition behind me. And sent glass into my lap and around my feet. And mysteriously I didn’t have a scratch. 

But, as you say, I was able to make contact with families and business owners who were affected by this—businesses destroyed, people killed, as you mentioned—the kind of chaos that Syrians live with every day. It felt really important to be there and kind of live through that with them—as hard as it was. 

EICHER: You also met with several U.S.-based organizations working in this war zone. I understand they’re doing their best to provide relief to those fleeing to relative safety, but describe what it is about Syria that makes this kind of work so much harder.

BELZ: I was really glad that I was in this exact region earlier this year—about 9 or 10 months ago so that I had a little basis of comparison. Because this region was actually coming back from nine years, now, of what we’ve called a civil war but has become a proxy war with these outside forces like Turkey moving in and trying to stake a claim on this very important part of the world. 

And I was able to see how what had been months ago a region that was stabilizing with people moving back, with villages starting to return to normal life is now a war zone again. And these groups—groups that have been there throughout this time—are again on a war footing. And it’s interesting that when Turkey crossed the borders, began to launch air strikes, arm drones—I saw drones almost every day I was there and tried to learn to spot the ones that are armed because they are simply buzzing above you and it is terrifying. And I began, again, to understand what people are living with there. 

What’s striking is that the large groups left—groups like Doctors Without Borders, World Vision, and others. It was too dangerous. They didn’t know who was going to be in control tomorrow. The groups that have stayed are small groups—some that are familiar to our listeners. Groups like Free Burma Rangers. You had them on earlier. Groups like Partners Relief and Development out of Grand Rapids. The Danish group DanChurch Aid, Open Doors, Operation Mobilization. 

These groups are working with churches, with pastors, with the Kurds—across ethnic and religious divides—and bringing aid. And what is an incredibly difficult situation where people are suddenly without resources, roads become impassable, a road that’s open an hour later is closed. You see military convoys moving about. It might be Americans. It might be Russians. It might be the Turks. 

It’s very hard to know where the front line is and who’s shooting at you. But there’s a lot of shooting and a lot of civilian harm that’s happening. 

EICHER: While all of this is happening in Syria, NATO leaders, as you well know, are meeting this week in London. You recently wrote that the action in Syria effectively marks the end of a functioning NATO. And the U.S. decision to pull back from Kurdish allies is certainly causing friction among member nations. Talk about the implications of all this.

BELZ: Well, I might have been trying to be provocative. But I do think that this is a very consequential moment. NATO partners are all gathered in London right now for what is the 70th anniversary summit. It’s been something that’s been building for a long time. And we have this operation going on that is an invasion by a NATO ally and happening with NATO permission. You can’t deny that. 

Every single day when Turkey sends a jet over Syria or drones into the region that are attacking civilians and hospitals and other things I saw, they’re doing that because the United States has given them permission. NATO has given them permission to do that. 

So this coalition that we saw for years fighting ISIS, dislodging them from the cities that ISIS controlled, now is standing back while Turkey does something very similar, while Turkey attacks civilians, while Turkey harms and empties cities. I mean, it’s striking that a whole city along the Euphrates River has been emptied by Turkey. 

And I found residents in refugee camps in Iraq, in schools living in northeast Syria, in villages living in abandoned houses, and living out on the open ground because they don’t have anywhere else to go and there’s been no plan for how to accommodate them. 

EICHER: And maybe it’s a provocative statement—it is a provocative statement—to say that they’re doing it with American permission. 

But it brings me around to the last question that I want to ask and it comes up to something we were talking about before we turned the microphones on here and that is this seeming idea that Turkey has us over a barrel. Not doing these things with American permission, but America can’t do anything about it. We’re over a barrel. 

Can you describe how we got to that point where Turkey holds the—for lack of a better term—trump cards? 

BELZ: It appears that it comes down to maybe two key things. One is that Turkey since 2015 has had three million refugees—

EICHER: In Turkey? 

BELZ: In Turkey. They’re from Syria. They’re from Iraq. They’re from other places. They’re from the war with ISIS. And at any point—and Turkey has actually threatened to do this—they can unleash those three million people into Europe. 

EICHER: Which, Europe, as liberal as they are, don’t want that. 

BELZ: Exactly. And we’ve seen a direct turn away from accepting refugees on the part of almost every country in Europe. The second thing is that Turkey has been very savvy. Turkey is certainly positioning itself under Erdogan as this neo-Ottoman empire. They have regional ambitions that do not coincide with NATO. And those ambitions have made them much more open to Islamic groups, to even al-Qaeda linked mercenary groups and terror groups, made them accommodating of Islamic jihadism—something that we’ve been fighting. 

And one of the things they have done is acquired this Russian-built air defense system. This is a system that will not talk to NATO military equipment and forces. And so it is directly contradictory to the goals of NATO. 

EICHER: So, he can pivot either way. That’s the point. 

BELZ: Precisely. 

EICHER: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor. Thanks so much for joining us today! Tough story, but thanks for bringing it. 

BELZ: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling Justice and Development Party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. 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 WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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