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In Northern Syria, Troops From Turkey Advance On Kurdish Forces


Turkey's assault on Kurdish forces in Syria is now in its third day. Aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian crisis as thousands of civilians are forced to flee their homes. A wave of international criticism has not lessened Turkey's determination to create a buffer on its border free of the Kurds, who were partners with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is on the Syrian border and joins us now. Peter, what can you tell us about the specifics of these attacks in terms of targets hit, number of casualties? What do we know?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the figures from the Turkish Defense Ministry have been coming out higher every time, as you can imagine. Yesterday, it was nearly 180 Kurdish militants had been neutralized, as they put it. Today, the figure rose to 277. Those numbers aren't independently confirmed. They could change. Turkish civilian fatalities reportedly stand at six. Syrian civilians, seven killed there. Turkey also says one military fatality occurred.

And most of these attacks are from Turkey into Syria. There was also some fire into the Turkish border town of Akcakale yesterday that led to the Turkish civilian deaths. And we've been seeing people fleeing some areas on both sides of the border.

MARTIN: I mean, the Turks view members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as terrorists, so they want to set up this buffer zone, as I mentioned, along the border. But do we know the extent of that zone, how far Turkey wants to push inside Syria?

KENYON: We know how far they want to. Whether they accomplish it is what we're watching to see. The goal is to create a safe zone, as they call it, 20 miles deep into Syria and stretching up to 300 miles wide all the way to the Iraqi border. At the moment, it's not nearly that wide. The area they're operating in is less than a third of that. But if and when this entire safe zone is established, Turkey says, then they're going to return Syrian refugees - perhaps one to two million of them - back to Syria.

MARTIN: You've been talking to people at the border. What are they telling you?

KENYON: Well, a lot of concern on the Syrian side. People - there's a row of houses right within sight of the border. A lot of them are empty, but we ran into a family - Yusef Salah (ph), his wife, eight children, number of other relatives gathered around. And Yusef Salah said his children actually were starting to get used to the noise of the mortars and the rockets, and they're not crying so much anymore. He said they're from just across the border at Ain Issa in Syria. And he had come across making arrangements to move out of the border area, but he decided not to do so for now. Here's some of what he said.

YUSEF SALAH: (Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking foreign language).

KENYON: Now, he says he got these Turkish documents that would allow him to move to another province. But when he came here, he saw all his relatives, and he just decided to stay close to them. He says everybody's terrified right now, but if the Turkish army manages to clear out the area in Syria around his town, he would immediately go back there, even if he had to walk.

MARTIN: Peter, as you know, the condemnation of Turkey's action in Syria has just - it's been from every corner. I mean, there are even reports this morning that Vladimir Putin in Russia is disapproving of this. Is this making any difference to Turkey's leader? How's he responding to the outcry?

KENYON: Not to his public comments. He's been totally defiant. He says this is a counterterrorism operation, pure and simple. The world should, in fact, be supporting it.

As you mentioned, world leaders aren't doing that. The EU says it will discuss sanctions against Turkey next week. Humanitarian agencies have lots of warnings. Human Rights Watch says some 700,000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance already. International Rescue Committee says this operation could add another 300,000 to the half million already displaced there.

MARTIN: And, of course, this assault by Turkey happened after President Trump moved U.S. troops away from the area, so Turkey could come in. Even the president's most strident supporters say this was a dangerous mistake on behalf of Trump. Has there been any change in the U.S. position?

KENYON: No, no change. And you're right. Critics across the board have said that this move to withdraw U.S. forces that allowed the Turks to move in - a lot of people see it that way - has added new levels of violence to an already volatile area. And it increases risks of more attacks, including by ISIS. There are a lot of ISIS prisoners being held by Syrian guard - Syrian Kurd guards there.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.