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Kurdish Militias Appear To Be Sidelined By U.S.-Turkey Military Deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. and Turkey will try to be allies in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. They announced a plan this week to try to maintain an ISIS-free zone along Turkey's Syrian border and will increase American and Turkish military action against the militants. The deal does appear to push Kurdish militia, who've worked closely with the U.S., against ISIS and Saddam Hussein before that to the side. Just today, Kurdish leaders condemned Turkey for bombing civilians in airstrikes in northwestern Iraq. Francis Ricciardone was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey until last summer. He's now director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.

FRANCIS RICCIARDONE: It's a pleasure to be back with you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Is the U.S. simply choosing Turkey over the Kurds?

RICCIARDONE: No, it's not that simple at all. Turkey is an ally, a treaty ally, not only against ISIS but against any other enemies to both of our national security. And indeed, Turkey is, in some ways, working with the Kurds in a very nuanced way.

SIMON: Tell us about that nuanced way.

RICCIARDONE: Sure. What is important here is that the Kurds of Syria - look, I don't want to get in too many alphabet soups with you, but let's call them the PYD, as they're known in English - are indeed an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurds of Turkey. The PKK are the internationally recognized terrorist group, the avowed enemies of the Turkish state. For the past many months, the United States and most of our other coalition partners have drawn a distinction between the PYD, the Kurds of Syria, who have been battling against ISIS very fiercely since last October, on the one hand, as people that we needed to work with and on the other hand, the PKK, whom we recognized years ago, as an enemy of our Turkish ally. That distinction is really important to us, and the Turkish government practically have accepted that distinction.

SIMON: Has something changed with Turkey? Because the last time we spoke with you, Mr. Ambassador, it was to ask you if Turkey really was an ally in the effort against ISIS.

RICCIARDONE: Well, I think there can be less question of that now. The United States' larger strategy with respect to Syria in the region remains to be articulated beyond the need to defeat and destroy ISIS. The Turks continue to see the strategic problem in different terms but now very much including the need to defeat ISIS. So there's more common ground than there was before, and it's more overt and explicit.

SIMON: Is there some risk that the U.S., though, winds up losing Kurdish fighters who have really proven themselves successful against ISIS?

RICCIARDONE: I don't see any trend in that direction. I don't see the United States relaxing in the support of the Kurdish fighters on the ground against ISIS. Why should that be? Remember, the Turkish government is stating that it's facing a terrorist threat on many fronts, not only ISIS but also the PKK. In that environment, where they're identifying numerous threats, the PKK are standing out as, once again, a threat. That's really too bad because the government of Turkey and the PKK had been in what the Turks called a process - not to call it a peace process but just a process - of coming to terms to end the decades-old PKK-led insurgency, basically, against the Turkish state. But the Kurds of Syria have explicitly taken themselves out of that conflict, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict.

SIMON: What difference do you think Turkey's military might make in the fight against ISIS?

RICCIARDONE: I think it could make a quite a large one in acting all the more effectively to seal off the border against others who try to go across it. If they do get involved in intelligence collection or even kinetic action against ISIS targets, that could be very meaningful. Basically for ISIS to have won itself another overt, explicit, powerful Muslim majority state as an enemy is quite a setback for ISIS.

SIMON: Francis Ricciardone is the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICCIARDONE: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.