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Uncertainty for residents as Turkey strikes Islamic State, Kurdish targets

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Turkey and the U.S. are working on plans to sweep Islamic State fighters from a strip of land across the Turkish border with Syria. This comes as Istanbul steps up its air campaign against the extremist group and its crackdown on Kurdish insurgents.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Southern Turkey, where many are holding their breaths.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    American fighter jets will soon be launched closer to the Islamic State group than ever before. From this Turkish base at Incirlik, they will pound the extremist group just across the border in Syria.

    A new deal between the U.S. and Turkey will allow Americans to launch airstrikes from Turkish soil and increase Turkey's role in the fight. This is a major turnaround for Turkey, which has been criticized for not doing enough to tackle ISIS. Now deadly attacks by the group along the border have pushed the Turkish government to act.

    At this outpost, 100 yards from ISIS, a Turkish soldier was shot dead by the group last week. Elbeyli village is the nearest Turkish village. People here are terrified that ISIS is simply too close. Some told us they want more soldiers to keep them safe.

    "We are so nervous," local resident Mehmet Orman says. "We want to see a normal life again here. We cannot sleep."

    An hour down the road, the group's power is alarmingly apparent. In areas like this along the Turkish border, ISIS are so close to Turkey that you can see their flags flying. Just behind me on that wall, there is an ISIS flag, just feet away. Now, what the Turkish government want to do is to push ISIS back from these areas to create some sort of safe zone or buffer.

    STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: It's clear that Turkey believes that, once you establish a safe zone, people will go back to it.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Steven Cook is a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • STEVEN COOK:

    It will become a place from which moderate Syrian forces will then expand in its march against the Islamic State, as well as the Assad regime. But, of course, one can imagine a whole host of scenarios that pull Turkish forces, as well as potentially American forces further into the Syria fight.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    The Islamic State has also hit the Kurdish people in Eastern Turkey. Ethnic Kurdish communities straddle the border between Turkey and Syria. Kurdish rebel fighters inside Syria have been battling ISIS for months.

    Last week, a suicide bomber killed 32 young activists in the Kurdish town of Suruc near the border inside Turkey. The attack shocked the nation and increased calls for action against ISIS. The young people killed here were planning to bring toys for children across the border a few miles to Kobani, where Kurdish forces had routed ISIS earlier this year.

    The five-month-long battle for Kobani was a significant victory for the Kurdish forces. It showed their growing strength inside Syria. The Turkish government watched with concern those gains in Kurdish territory, fearful their own Kurdish population may push harder for independence. Now this new deal with the American military opens the door for Turkey to fight not only ISIS, but the Kurds.

    And it's already happening. Turkish jets bombed both ISIS in Syria and Kurdish forces of the Turkish insurgent force called the PKK, based in Iraq, as soon as the deal was announced. A two-year-old cease-fire with those Kurdish rebels in Turkey is now believed to be over. People back in Suruc say Turkey is only starting another war inside its own territory.

    In the name of operations against ISIS, they're attacking Kurds," this man tells me. "We don't accept this. I'm sure we don't want war. Why don't we want war? Look at Egypt, Kobani, Lebanon, Iraq. You can see what happened there."

    Although American jets have been helping the Kurds win territory from ISIS in Syria, U.S. officials now say they support Turkey's strikes against Kurdish targets.

    Turkey's involvement in the war against ISIS could prove a crucial turning point in U.S.-led coalition efforts to destroy the group. Opening a new fighting front against Kurds in the region simultaneously will change the delicate balance of alliances in an already complex war.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I spoke to Jane Ferguson a short time ago.

    Jane, we're talking now about an ISIL/ISIS-free zone right along the border now. Why is it that Turkey is interested in this now?

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Well, Turkey is under increasing pressure. The Turkish president is under pressure from his own population to do something about ISIS and not to be seen as being soft on terror.

    Violence in the past week has shocked Turkey. But what's complicated issues for the Turkish government is the fact that there are so many Kurdish rebels on their border with Syria, on the Syrian side of the border. Those rebels have been making massive gains against ISIS and taking territory away from ISIS whenever they have victories, which they have had in the recent months.

    That complicates things for Turkey because the Turkish government are dealing with a large Kurdish minority in their country who, for decades, have been pushing for independence. And they, of course, don't want to see any bolstering of Kurdish calls for independence right on their border and in their territory.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is there also — you mentioned the word complication more than once. There are a lot of complications here. And another of them is Syria itself, the degree to which anything involved in this collaboration could help the pro-Assad forces in Syria.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    This, of course, does complicate things, because it will of course be fighting ISIS and not necessarily fighting Assad, and that is something that the Turkish government have been criticizing the coalition for.

    They really wanted airstrikes against Assad. They wanted a no-fly zone imposed. So for them, they had been holding out for that. But at the minute, it's likely that this is really just going — the details of this deal will be revealed tomorrow, probably most likely at that NATO meeting.

    So we won't know the details just yet. But the plan, as far as officials are telling journalists, would be to create this buffer zone to allow certain rebel groups, not Kurdish rebel groups, and certain rebel groups that are being described as moderate, to take over that specific area. That would give them room to resupply. It would give them room to maneuver, room to basically operate in the area around Aleppo, not in Aleppo city.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But we don't know how far this buffer zone you're talking about would actually extend.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    That's not clear yet how far in it would go. It's unlikely that it would go of course all the way to Aleppo city. That would be an enormous military target.

    But if it could just move in far enough to be able to push ISIS away from the border, so that they no longer can touch the Turkish border, that would be significant in itself militarily because that would affect their link to the outside world, essentially.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Jane Ferguson reporting for us tonight in Turkey, thank you.

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