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Is U.S.-Turkey relationship weakened over Kurdish conflict?

Turkish officials say the air and ground campaign against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northwest Syria is a "national security issue" and an effort to protect the country's border, but the U.S. sees the Kurdish militia as a valuable partner in the fight against ISIS. Judy Woodruff talks with Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., for the Turkish perspective on the conflict in Syria.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new front in the nearly seven-year Syrian war is opening in the country’s northwest.

    Turkish troops and allied fighters are waging an air and ground campaign against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin, an area Kurds have controlled for much of the conflict.

    Turkey officials say Operation Olive Branch isn’t an invasion, but an effort to protect Turkey’s borders from the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Northwest Syria. They say some 20 villages have been cleared of those Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG. They are linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

    Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

  • Binali Yildirim:

    (Through interpreter) Firstly, the Afrin operation is a national security issue for Turkey. Secondly, it is to end the cruelty of the terror groups over the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens living in peace there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It comes after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month accused the U.S. of building an army of terror along its border made up of those Kurdish fighters.

    But the U.S. insists that the Kurdish YPG are a valuable partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. They helped liberate the former ISIS capital, Raqqa.

    But in Syria’s northeast, Kurdish-controlled territory, here in yellow, borders Turkey. Erdogan has also vowed to push the Afrin operation east, to Manbij. That’s where U.S. Special Forces are operating with the Syrian Kurds.

    In response, General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told CNN earlier this week that pulling U.S. troops from Manbij wasn’t — quote — “something we are looking into.”

    Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White today.

  • Dana White:

    Turkey has, is a NATO ally, and we don’t always see everything the same, but the common threat is ISIS. And anything that takes away from that fight is a distraction, so that’s why we have asked them to restrain themselves and to limit this offensive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Caught in the middle, several hundred thousand Kurdish civilians in the Afrin region. At least 240 Syrians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Roughly 90 are said to be YPG fighters. The Turks say at least five of their soldiers have been killed.

    And now, for the official Turkish perspective on the fight in Syria, and relations with the U.S., I am joined by Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States.

    Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being here.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Thank you, Judy, for having me and providing me with the opportunity to enlighten your views with regard to the ongoing operation in Northwest Syria.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why is your government so concerned, so worried, so against these YPG fighters who have helped the United States defeat ISIS in Syria?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, if you can bear with me a moment, first of all, I would like to set the perspective in that regard.

    You have suffered the result of terrorist attacks. I know how vivid the bitter memories of 9/11 in the hearts and minds of the American people. I mean, we do not suffer as many on a single attack on a single day, 3,000 or so.

    But, during the last three decades, we have lost 40,000 Turkish citizens as a result of attacks conducted by PKK. And how could they sustain those attacks during the last three decades Because there was a lack of authority and lack of security in Northern Iraq.

    And they used that enclave as a safe haven to conduct their attacks on Turkish territory. And they killed 40,000 innocent Turkish citizens, men, women and children, and including some Turkish security officers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, if I may interrupt, that is inside Turkey.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I’m asked about the YPG, who are across the border in Syria.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Yes.

    Well, actually, PKK was in Syrian — in Iraqi territories in Northern Iraq. And they were using that area to stage their attacks, cross the border, and conduct the attacks in Turkish territory.

    The same thing was happening in Northern Syria. In 2012, the Syrian regime, without putting up a fight, they left the area to YPG/PYD. And they controlled the area, Afrin region since then. And they have changed the demographics. They have expelled Sunni Arabs, Turkmens, and anyone that was against the ideology of the YPG/PYD.

    And they started conducting attacks against Turkish territory, Turkish civilians. They targeted Turkish civilians. The last year alone, they have conducted 700 attacks. Scores of people died, not only to Turkey. They also attacked the operation in the Operation Euphrates Shield area within Syria itself.

    So, I mean, we look at that kind of eventuality that we have faced for three decades in Northern Iraq to take place in Northern Syria as well. And it was an absolute requirement for us to take action in that regard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear what you’re saying. At the same time, the U.S. is saying, these are fighters who have helped us defeat ISIS.

    You understand why defeating ISIS is such a priority for the United States.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, Judy, that’s the problem.

    Da’esh, or ISIS, is the symptom. The United States is not dealing with the illness itself. It’s just fighting with the symptom. And as long as we use appropriate measures, tactics and strategies, we are going to be faced with a similar threat in the future in Syria.

    I mean, the YPG/PYD is a direct offshoot of PKK. Even U.S. authorities…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You’re saying connected to the Kurdish extremists?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Not connected. Not connected. They are under direct control of PKK. Their commanders are coming from Qandil Mountains, the bases of PKK in Northern Iraq.

    And even during the Senate hearing in April 2016, you will recall that Senator Graham asked a question, a direct question, to then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter whether they knew there was a direct linkage between YPG/PYD. And he acknowledged that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Your government has made all of these arguments, your president has made these arguments to the U.S. government.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Time and again. Time and again, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has chosen to disagree for the time being. It is saying, we need to continue this fight in Northwest Syria. We’re not going to let remove — we’re not going to let you remove the YPG. We’re going to do everything we can.

    Is your government prepared to pursue this fight even if it means American troops may be killed in the process?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, Judy first of all, if we are going to conduct a successful fight against terrorists, and if, at the end of today, we would like to prevail, then we should use correct strategies.

    We should be very careful in terms of choosing our partners on the ground. You cannot fight successfully with a terrorist organization by making use of another terrorist organization.

    This is the mistake that the American administration is doing for the time being in Syria. YPG/PYD is a terrorist organization. So, in fact, they that Raqqa is liberated by YPG/PYD, right? Actually, the terrorist organization in Raqqa have been substituted.

    Now Da’esh is out of Raqqa, but YPG/PYD is in. And these are not our wars. Just look at the reports of humanitarian organizations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International. They’re enumerating all the efforts of ethnic cleansing, forceful recruitment of children, and so on and so forth.

    They’re running counter to each and every principle that the United States stands for. But yet the United States opts for working with YPG/PYD, and even in your intro, you have stated them as a partner of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With such a fundamental disagreement here, how much damage has been done? How much is the U.S.-Turkey relationship weakened by this?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, I mean, I believe that the U.S. public opinion is among the best to understand how the Turkish public opinion feels after they lost — we have lost 40,000 people.

    So, you should understand us. Of course it has a tremendous effect on the feelings of the Turkish public opinion. We want to fight against terrorism. We have been part and parcel of the international coalition since its inception.

    But we would like to fight terrorists with the appropriate strategies. You have a NATO — you have an ally that has the second largest army in NATO. The United States could have…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Turkey. Right. Right.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Of course, United States could have opted for working with Turkey to conduct a successful fight against Da’esh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many Americans are looking at this and looking at what the U.S., the Trump administration position is, and they are still asking, is Turkey prepared to see U.S. soldiers die in this fight where your government is going after the YPG?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, Judy, I mean, we are long-term allies.

    And I am confident that we are not going to come to that point. But in order to ensure that, I think the United States should take certain actions. They should terminate their support to a terrorist organization, which an ally time and again claims that that terrorist organization constitutes an existential threat for our security and stability.

    So, they should put an end to their support. They should cease providing them weapons and ammunition.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Have you asked them to do this?

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Of course. Of course.

    And they should collect weapons that they have even already — I mean, as of yesterday, there have been rockets sent to Turkey, a hospital, a restaurant, a house. And they have killed and wounded scores of people.

    And most of those weapons, I’m confident, were that were provided by the United States. How can you make sure that the weapons that you have given to YPG/PYD fighting Da’esh are not going to be — to end up used against Turkish assets, Turkish civilians and Turkish security forces?

    We have made those points time and again. And they are cognizant that they shouldn’t — there’s no difference between YPG/PYD and PKK. So, I mean…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It…

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just going to say, it is an enormously important subject for the United States, for your country.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I know we’re going to continue to watch it very closely, Ambassador.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Well, I mean, yes. We are strong allies. We need each other. And then I hope that we are going to prevail at the end of the day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Kilic, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Thank you for having me. Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     We appreciate it.

  • Serdar Kilic:

    Thank you. Thank you.

     

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