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What Turkey’s assault on northern Syria means for civilians, regional stability

Turkey continued its military assault into northern Syria on Thursday. Aid agencies warn that nearly half a million people near the border are at risk from the violence, which is drawing criticism from many U.S. officials. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Sinam Mohamad, U.S. representative for the Syrian Democratic Council, and Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The situation in Syria is escalating at a dangerous pace. Turkey continues its military assault into Northern Syria, forcing tens of thousands to flee.

    Aid agencies warn, nearly a half-million people near the border are at risk.

    Amna Nawaz has the latest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Inside Syria's northern border, Turkish tanks let loose a hail of gunfire. Turkey stepped up its assault on U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces on the ground and in the air.

    On day two of the offensive, Turkish planes bombed Kurdish-held towns, dotting the Syrian skyline with smoke.

    Near Qamishli in Northeastern Syria, families fled for the Iraqi border.

  • Suad Suliman (through translator):

    Last night, they fired rockets, and I swear the situation is not good at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those still in town grieved in the hospital for family killed by the airstrikes.

    In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the operation, dubbed Peace Spring. He insisted the onslaught is about protecting territory.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Just like all the other operations carried out by Turkey, the aim of the Peace Spring is to contribute to Syria's territorial and political integrity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Turkey says the territory should include a 20-mile buffer zone along the Syrian border to protect against Syrian Kurds, who it views as terrorists.

    Turkey today hit a number of Kurdish-held border towns. The assault on the U.S. Kurdish allies came after the U.S. withdrew its forces from the area Monday. On Sunday, President Trump spoke with Erdogan on the phone about the removal, giving Turkey a green light to attack the Kurds.

    The Syrian Kurds played a key role in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition that took back territory held by the so-called Islamic State. After coming under fire for the troop withdrawal, President Trump threatened economic action against Turkey, a NATO ally, over the attack.

    In Washington this afternoon, President Trump weighed in.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We are going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The U.S. also announced today it had in its custody two ISIS fighters from a group of four known as the Beatles for their British accents. They were known for beheading prisoners.

    Experts worry that other ISIS fighters detained in Syria by Kurdish forces could escape amid the onslaught. But Turkey's foreign minister said it will take over the prisons if the assault on the Kurds succeeds.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    It will be our responsibility to make sure that they will be held accountable for what they did. And we will make sure that they will not be released.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In response to criticism, Erdogan threatened to send Turkey's 3.6 million Syrian refugees to Europe.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    If you try to label this operation as an invasion, it's very simple. We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since the fighting started on Wednesday, an estimated 60,000 have already fled their homes in Northern Syria. The violence threatens some 450,000 Syrians who live within three miles of the Turkish border. Human rights groups say they are all at risk.

    And for now an inside look, we have Sinam Mohamad. She's the U.S. representative for the Syrian Democratic Council. It's the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other minority groups fighting on the ground in Northeast Syria.

    The Council's mission is to work toward implementing a — quote — "secular, democratic, and decentralized system for all of Syria."

    Sinam, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Thank you so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, I have to ask you.

    Turkish President Erdogan has said the purpose of these strikes is to fight and target terrorists on the ground. You have been in contact with the people on the ground in those communities. What are you hearing today?

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Unfortunately, what's going on, on the ground, it is not the same thing that Mr. Erdogan is telling.

    First of all, this attack has been launched from yesterday. And even though the agreement between the United States and Turkey and the SDF about the safe zone or about the security mechanism, how to leave this border safe, this is agreed to.

    We agreed because we wanted to have this area's peace. We don't — we wanted to avoid the war in the area. Unfortunately, I mean, Erdogan, he is not satisfied with this agreement.

    Although we are showing very flexibility in this agreement, they say, you have to withdraw all the fighters, the Kurdish fighters. OK, we accepted. We withdrew it about five kilometers away from the border.

    They say, you have to pull all the heavy weapons from the border. We did it. And we pulled back all the heavy weapons away from the border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're saying that, in those negotiations…

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    This is in the — yes, in the agreement.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … you didn't expect the Turkish forces to launch this offensive.

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    This is what the United States told us. OK, this agreement will be to avoid the war in between Turkey — I mean, not to attack you.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is what the U.S. told you?

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Yes. And this is what we agreed to.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when President Trump said that the U.S. forces would be leaving, did you know then that Turkish forces would be moving in?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    It was suddenly like this happened.

    When Erdogan, he is gathering all his forces and his army across our border, to the border, that time here, we were in the United States, and we asked them. He is gathering all the forces there. And it seems he's not satisfied what's going on in our agreement.

    They say, he's Erdogan. We don't know what can he do? But we are there on the ground.

    But, suddenly, what happened then, the U.S., they pulled back their forces from the border only, from the safe zone, which they call it, safe zone border of Turkey, and put it back inside Syria. And this makes Turkey to come and to attack this region.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes. And, Sinam, I apologize. We don't have too much time.

    I do want to get to some of the people you have been talking to on the ground. What are they telling you?

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Now, the situation is very catastrophe.

    Turkey is shelling from airspace and from the artillery. Most of them, they are using the airplanes. And they are shelling all over the border, from the Euphrates River, to the Tigris River, to the border of Iraqi River.

    It is about 450 kilometers' long they are shelling.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what is the impact on the ground?

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    All the civilians. The civilians are there. They are shelling the cities where are the civilians.

    For instance, I will give you one example. In (INAUDIBLE) city, which is the biggest inhabited people there, yesterday, they shelled a neighborhood, a Christian neighborhood. There, two people, they be killed. They are Christians, and the other, they are injured.

    As well as we have (INAUDIBLE) now we have people, they demonstrate against this attack of Turkey (INAUDIBLE). And it's inhabited. (INAUDIBLE) and Ras al-Ayn, it is about 400,000 living there.

    And when they demonstrate against the attack, Turkey shelling this demonstration, and 10 people died. This is what's happening. So, they are telling, we are not shelling the civilian, but the civilian…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes. But you're hearing they are shelling civilians as well.

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you something a senior State Department official mentioned to us earlier.

    They said that they think it this is big mistake. They wished that Turkey had not launched this offensive. And they also said that they plan to work with the SDF in the future.

    Very briefly, do you ever see the SDF working with the U.S. again?

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Now they are in the inside. Still, they are there. The U.S., they are still there, military.

    But we hope that they can stop this attack. This is what we hope. We hope that, can they stop this attack, because we would like to have the stability. We would like to have the peace process talk in order to save the people, the Syrian people.

    It's enough for the Syrian people. They have suffered a lot through these eight years. And now this attack will be — destabilize the area, and will be — the consequences of it, it will be very dangerous…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You would like to see…

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    … for Syria and even — and for Turkey.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You would like to see the U.S. act right now.

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative for the Syrian Democratic Council, thank you for your time.

  • Sinam Mohamad:

    Thank you so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We invited the Turkish ambassador to the United States to join us on tonight's show. The embassy declined.

    Now we get a perspective from Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay. He's the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's also the author the new book called "Erdogan's Empire."

    Soner, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you about this.

    The president, obviously, of Turkey has said this is a national security concern. Explain for us, what is the threat? And how do these strikes address that threat?

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    There is a legitimate security concern for Turkey here.

    The Syrian Kurdish group is an offshore a Turkish Kurdish group called PKK. And that group is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, as well as by a number of NATO countries, of course Turkey.

    And the Kurdish group in Syria known as People's Protection Units, YPG, is an offshoot of this group that is designated. This group is now establishing a legal entity, a state-like entity along Turkey's border in Syria.

    And, of course, Turkey for a long time tolerated that, because the United States partnered with this Kurdish group to combat ISIS. But with the defeat of ISIS, now Turkey wants not only this relationship to be reconsidered, but also is going after this offshoot of this terrorist group in Northern Syria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you about that fight against ISIS now, because even U.S. officials will say that ISIS could become resurgent again, and that Turkey launching an offensive will take the attention of those same forces that helped to defeat ISIS away from ISIS and allow them to reassess and reassert themselves there.

    What do you say to that?

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    That would be an unfortunate outcome.

    And that's why I think it's important for this conflict to come to a speedy end, and just seeing that United States might be mediating between Turkey and the fighting parties.

    I think, though, at this stage, it is important for Washington to not appear as if it is marking or underestimating a severe security threat to Turkey. Turkey is a United States ally by treaty. It is a member of NATO.

    And I think, for a very long time, the Turks are very patient, allowing the United States to work with this group that is a sworn enemy of Ankara. And now, of course, they have gone after it.

    So, hopefully, this will end up quite soon, and we will see some more stability in Northern Syria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Soner, a senior State Department official briefed some reporters earlier and mentioned that they did not think that they gave a green light in any way to President Erdogan.

    And they also said they hope this mission and operation concludes quickly. Do you have any idea of how long it will go on?

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    I think Turkey at this stage wants to establish bridgeheads Northern Syria.

    And what Ankara has done something quite smart is, they have used as entry points Arab-majority areas in Northern Syria, where Turkish troops would be more welcome than had they gone into Kurdish majority areas.

    I don't think Turkey is going to invade and hold onto large parts of Northern Syria. They only want to establish bridgeheads populated by Arabs in order to undermine and weaken the Syrian Kurdish group.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is obviously a lot of talk here about this move now empowering Turkey's position in the area. They could expand further.

    I'd like to get your thoughts on that. But I also wonder if you think that this empowers Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Does it empower Iran? Does it empower Russia?

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    It probably does empower those parties. And I think that's why the conflict in Syria needs a global solution.

    For once, I think, other than looking at ISIS problem, the United States has naturally looked into the other problem, which is the problem of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator, who has been bombed millions of people. And he's the root cause of the radicalization of Syrian people.

    And I think, of course, short of that, you cannot find a global fix to Syria's problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How much of this offensive do you think is driven as primarily a security concern for President Erdogan? How much of it is him seeing an opportunity to make good on something he's wanted to do for a while, while he is vulnerable electorally at home?

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    Look, I have been quite critical of Turkish President Erdogan. After all, I wrote an entire book on him called "The New Sultan."

    But in this case, I think President Erdogan is right. The concern that he has towards this terrorist group is shared not by those who support him in Turkey, but also by many of those who oppose him. There is broad consensus among Turkey's 82 million citizenry that this is the time for Turkey to act.

    Otherwise, a terror group across the country's longest land border in Syria will establish an independent or autonomous political entity. So, in this regard, I think the timing is right and Mr. Erdogan is right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, thank you for your time.

  • Soner Cagaptay:

    Thank you so much.

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