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

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, Syrian Kurd (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, Turkish President (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. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
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, Turkish Foreign Minister:
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. 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, U.S. Representative, Syrian
Democratic Council: 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, Director, Turkish Research
Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: 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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