Turkish, U.S. forces launch operation in Syria; Biden calls for Kurds to halt advances

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Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RTX2MVAL

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Turkish military forces launched a major operation inside Syria today to retake the strategic border town of Jarabulus from ISIS.

Turkish and American jets attacked from above, as Turkish tanks and special forces moved into the town. Syrian rebel groups were also part of the operation.

Beyond ousting ISIS from the area, Turkey has another motive for attacking on Jarabulus, to stem the ambitions of the main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, which has been taking over territory from ISIS.

Vice President Biden was visiting Turkey today, and he called upon the Kurds to limit their advances.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have made it absolutely clear to the elements that were part of the Syrian democratic forces, the YPG that participated, that they must move back across the river. They cannot, will not and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment, period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We examine the significance of all of this now with Aaron Stein. He’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Aaron Stein, thank you for being here.

AARON STEIN, Atlantic Council: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is the significance of this incursion across the border into Syria?

AARON STEIN: I think the biggest one is, it denies ISIS one of its last major crossing points across the Turkish-Syrian border.

Jarabulus has historically been a place where they have moved men and material across. So, by Turkey moving in alongside of its host of Arab groups, ISIS loses territory along its border, ISIS goes weaker. And this is a good thing for the U.S. and Turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if it hadn’t been for this move, it’s possible that the Syrian Kurds would have been in that territory sooner or later, is that not right?

AARON STEIN: Yes, I think that’s the issue here, is that the United States is having to thread a very fine needle. It’s having to thread the needle very finely here.

But it has to, one, prosecute the war against ISIS, where the Syrian Kurds have become the most prominent ground force and the one capable of taking the most territory, while managing ties with a NATO ally who is very wary of the Syrian Kurds moving up to its border.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know, for many people, some of these terms are hard to follow. I mentioned the YPG, this particular Syrian Kurdish group.

But let me ask you about the U.S. interest here, because until now it seems the U.S. has been careful to respect the role of the Kurds in that region, despite the tensions with Turkey’s government. What’s changed?

AARON STEIN: I don’t think anything has changed.

What I think is going on is that, in this previous operation, the one for the city of Manbij, which is just a few miles south, they had Turkish buy-in for heavy Turkish presence in there, contingent upon the larger, broader deal that the Kurds, as the vice president said, would move back across the river.

And I think that’s what the vice president was saying today, is that the Kurds have got to uphold their end of the bargain. The United States essentially told Turkey that they would make the Kurds move back. And then concurrent to that, you have Turkey moving into Jarabulus.

Syria is a very complicated place with a lot of moving parts. And this is just one of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let’s back up and look at the larger political — geopolitical picture here, and that has to do with the coup attempt in Turkey just a month or so ago. That’s really changed the dynamic, hasn’t it, between the U.S. and Turkey?

AARON STEIN: Right.

I don’t think anybody was planning for a coup on July 15, a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15. And that’s obviously complicated relations largely because the person that Turkey accuses of being the mastermind of the coup, Fethullah Gulen, is a U.S. green card holder who lives in Pennsylvania.

And there’s been some back and forth about the extradition process. Turkey just wishes we would hand him over, and the U.S., for very obvious reasons, if you ask me, is making Turkey follow all the legal steps, because, if you really violate those legal steps, and if you take special measures, even for an ally, it sends the wrong message that the U.S. will just simply turn people over.

And sometimes an ally doesn’t ask to turn people over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, connect the dots. Between Turkey’s nervousness and asking to get Fethullah Gulen back extradited from the United States, and then Turkey being anxious to put a stop to any potential Kurdish move in Syria, connects the two things.

AARON STEIN: Well, so this is where the politics become very important.

So, the United States has an incentive to support Turkey, a NATO ally, as it moves into Syria, particularly in Jarabulus. And I think, moving forward, that’s where the questions will be. So, how long does Turkey plan to stay in Jarabulus? Does it have plans to move farther? And what is the U.S. role in this?

And I think we’re still figuring that out, as outsiders, and I would even say that the U.S. government is still figuring that out, because this operation does seem to have kind of come together relatively quickly on the Turkish side, even if their plans have been on the shelf for a little over — for the past year or so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron Stein, remind us why Turkey is an important ally for the United States.

AARON STEIN: Well, they have been an ally in the NATO alliance since 1952.

It’s always hard to point to why breaking such an alliance is a big deal, other than, at a time when transatlantic relations and the NATO alliance has come under pressure from the Republican presidential candidate for the presidency, you want to keep the transatlantic alliance in place.

And if you look beyond ISIS, the threat from the Islamic State, Turkey is in a part of the world where the U.S. likes to play a role in. And obviously we would like to have as many friends as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this is clearly — or in part, at least, a case of the United States placating, wanting to make sure it stays on good terms with Turkey, as Turkey deals with its insecurity when it comes to the Kurds.

AARON STEIN: I think we do have an incentive to try and reach back out to Turkey, even though, within Turkey, there has been, in my opinion, sort of an overplaying of the anti-American card to deflect from what really has been a very traumatic past month in Turkey.

You have a failed coup attempt, over 200 people killed. Parliament was bombed. And the military was really fractured. So this is a big problem, and the Turkish leaders have leaned on anti-American sentiment to explain it away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just bottom line here, it’s a reminder that, yes, ISIS is a big enemy, but ISIS is not the only complicating factor in that part of the world. There’s a lot going on between the Turks and the Kurds.

AARON STEIN: Absolutely.

For Turkey, the Kurdish sub-state actor problem is always number one. ISIS, I would say, is 1-A, and now you have to add Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey also claims is a sub-state actor, who they say carried out a coup attempt on July 15 and now lives in the United States. All three things came together. And it’s a very difficult time for U.S.-Turkey relations because of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there are a lot of threads to follow here. And we thank you for helping us understand what’s going on.

Aaron Stein, we appreciate it.

AARON STEIN: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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