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Neighbor Turkey’s Reluctant Role in Syrian Civil War

November 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The violence in Syria's 20-month conflict has moved eastward, closer to Turkey's border, and more players have entered the ring, including Syrian Kurds fighting against rebel forces. Ray Suarez talks to Margaret Warner from Istanbul about the price of the war for Turkey and the country's request for aid from the U.S.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And we turn to Syria.

No country has been more affected by the uprising than its neighbor to the north, Turkey. Thousands of refugees have flooded across the border, and stray mortar shells routinely land near Turkish towns.

Margaret Warner is on a reporting trip to the region. I spoke with her from Istanbul a short time ago about Turkey’s role in the conflict and its relationship with the U.S.

Margaret, welcome.

The death toll has passed a significant milestone, 40,000 people, and the war is said to be widening. What’s changing inside Syria and how is that affecting Turkey?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what’s clear, Ray, is, what isn’t changing is the loss of life. We saw that in northwestern Syria, where Assad’s ground forces had withdrawn, but the relentless bombing from the air continued. So people were still dying there.

Then, as we have moved eastward in Turkey on the Turkish side of the border, it’s apparent that the violence in Syria, the fighting is also moving eastward, too.

And the new wrinkle here is that, in some areas from which the government forces have withdrawn, there’s now a new battlefront between the Kurds, who have taken control of some of these towns, and the Free Syrian Army, the rebels, who are otherwise winning territory in other parts of Syria.

So, actually, as you said, the conflict is widening with more players, and, of course, that will only bring more loss of life.

RAY SUAREZ: The Kurds, of course, a transnational people living in Turkey, in Iraq, and in Syria. But I thought the old idea was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

How come the Free Syrian forces are fighting against the Kurds?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that old adage doesn’t apply to Syria’s Kurds. Syria’s Kurds have been so marginalized, perhaps the most in any of — there are actually four countries, because Iran also has Kurds. They weren’t even citizens of Syria.

And they don’t trust, the Free Syrian Army, the Sunni Arab rebels. They don’t have a bond with them and they don’t trust them any more than they did Assad.

They don’t trust that in a post-Assad Syria, if it was completely run by the rebels, the rebels we know of, that they would have any more rights than they did under Assad.

And so, instead, they have been training over in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, and hoping to take advantage of this chaos to carve out areas that could ultimately become an independent Syrian Kurdish state.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, as Syria’s war widens, the pressure on Turkey has grown, as we have seen from your previous reporting here on the “NewsHour.” But, recently, the Ankara government has made an interesting request to NATO. Tell us more about it.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re absolutely right, Ray.

Turkey has requested actually a week or so ago for NATO to send Patriot missile batteries to defend Turkey’s border and airspace against any incoming of any sort that would come in from Syria and elsewhere.

It’s no secret that Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and Syrian President Assad have been on the outs ever since Erdogan, I don’t know, 16 months ago called on Assad step down.

And in these sort of — as you know, Turkish forces have been moved to the border. There has been some back-and-forth — It has become very apparent and widely discussed in the media here that despite having the second largest army in NATO after the U.S., Turkey’s air defenses are not that great.

So, what Turkey is saying to NATO is, we need to defend our airspace. There is, however, speculation that it might also be Turkey’s backdoor way of putting in a cornerstone from which NATO ultimately might create a no-fly zone inside Syria.

And that is something Turkey has been calling for, for months now, because they want to create a zone in which the internally displaced in Syria can go and be safe without coming into Turkey.

Turkey is already paying a huge price and a huge burden for 120,000 just refugees in camps that they have there, and they’re really getting to the breaking point on that.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner in Istanbul, thanks for joining us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret’s next report delves further into the fighting by the Kurds in Syria and its political impact on Turkey.

Plus, you can see her earlier stories and blog posts. That’s on our World page.