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Turkey Straddles Western Allegiances And Mideast Realities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So the U.S. has been weaving the fabric of a coalition together, but let's tug on one of the threads for a moment. Turkey is so vital - a big country right on that ISIS-controlled border with Syria. Scott mentioned they do not see ISIS the same way the U.S. does. The U.S. wants Turkish help against ISIS, but this week instead of bombing ISIS, Turkey's powerful military conducted airstrikes against a group of ethnic Kurds within Turkey itself.

To understand why, it helps to learn how Turkish leaders see the world, especially the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We spoke with Charles King, author of "Midnight At The Pera Palace: The Birth Of Modern Istanbul." So if you're the leader of Turkey and you're looking south across your border into Syria at ISIS, what do you see?

CHARLES KING: Well, I think for the Turks, the threat of ISIS is not seen in the same way that we might see it in the West. That is it's one of a number of threats that Turkey might face. Keep in mind the Turks have their own domestic concerns, not only domestic political concerns, but also the problem of separatism.

INSKEEP: You have just reminded me of something about the map of Turkey; that jagged line that is the southern border cuts through the middle of a Kurdish region. There are ethnic Kurds south of that line in Syria and Iraq, and there are ethnic Kurds north of that line in Turkey.

KING: That's right. And one of the great obsessions of Turkish politics, really for the nearly 100 years that the Turkish Republic has existed, is what to do about Kurds. It's Turkey's largest ethnic minority, so a worry in Turkey has persistently been, how does it keep control of its own southeast? And what do you do in the event that Kurds across those borders in Syria, Iraq and Turkey should seek to unite?

INSKEEP: Now, this is amazing what you're saying, though, because you're saying that Turkey looks across the border at ISIS - this extremist group that is beheading people, that took Turkish diplomats hostage by the dozen for a while - and they don't even see that as the biggest threat they face.

KING: So Turkey is in a very difficult neighborhood. For most of the last 30 years, almost every country on Turkey's borders has been at war in one form or another. You have secessionist conflicts in Georgia and Armenia; you have the Iran-Iraq war, followed by the Gulf War, followed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and then of course the current conflict in Syria. Farther afield you've had conflicts in Chechnya that produced refugees in Turkey; you had conflicts in the Balkans that produced refugees in Turkey. So while the Syrian refugee crisis is by far the largest of those, it's nothing new for Turkey.

INSKEEP: So we're standing in Turkey - you're standing on a map of Turkey - we've been looking south. What happens if you turn around and you're looking north and northwest across the Bosporus to the scrap of Turkey that's actually part of Europe? What do Turks see when they look in that direction right now?

KING: This was the real heartland of the Ottoman Empire. We think of the Ottomans as having been a Middle Eastern power, but they thought of themselves as a European power.

INSKEEP: Istanbul is in Europe, we should note...

KING: And Istanbul is of course half in Europe, half in Asia. It takes a bridge or a boat ride or now a subway ride to get from one continent to the next. So Turks look at Europe not as something they want to join, but something that they were in fact once a part of.

INSKEEP: I suppose if you're an American policymaker, you want to cut through this and ask a bottom-line question - is Recep Erdogan going to help with this problem with ISIS or not?

KING: I think if the idea is that the Turks will send troops across the border on their own and somehow solve the problem, the answer is probably going to be no.

INSKEEP: Permanently no, you think?

KING: Permanently no. And so long as the NATO allies themselves are not committed to overthrowing Assad, changing the dynamic in Syria - why put a Band-Aid on the problem by simply attacking ISIS? Erdogan wants to hold out until there is much bigger commitment to changing the politics of Syria.

INSKEEP: So Erdogan is holding out for more Western help in that regard?

KING: That's right, some kind of buffer zone along the Turkish border that would be a permanently enforced no-fly zone, perhaps even some commitment to Western troops on the ground if Turkey is going to commit troops on the ground. So there's a kind of diplomatic game that's going on between Ankara and Washington and London and so on as well.

INSKEEP: Now, this is very interesting because the United States has a president who very much wants to make sure that allies are brought along and that people in the region that the U.S. is dealing with carry their weight. And you're saying here is a very significant player in that region waiting for the United States to carry its weight.

KING: That's right. I think waiting to see what the United States will do and again having different perceptions about the immediate threat of ISIS. I think everyone can agree that the actions in Syria have been barbaric from the Turkish perspective; however, this is only one of a number of issues that they're trying to weigh out.

INSKEEP: Charles King, thanks very much.

KING: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's author of "Midnight At The Pera Palace: The Birth Of Modern Istanbul." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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