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Mideast Conflicts Converge In Once-Quiet Turkish City


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. There is a city in southern Turkey where many of the conflicts in the Middle East have converged. Gaziantep, which is not far from the Syrian border, has become a hub for Syrian refugees, suspected ISIS militants, Syrian rebel leaders, foreign aid workers and American contractors. Robin Wright is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She recently traveled to Gaziantep and wrote about her trip for the New Yorker. She joins us here in the studio. Thanks for being with us, Robin.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Can you put this place in context for us? I mean, what's the history of Gaziantep? This is, as you write, a place that was known for its baklava up until very recently.

WRIGHT: Yes, and it's very normally quiet part of Turkey, but it has become the lookout post for what's happening across that 500-mile frontier.

MARTIN: Is it just because of its geography, where it's situated in Turkey, that it has become this place?

WRIGHT: It's become important in part because of geography, but also of the fact that there are now 1.6 million refugees from Syria in Turkey and many of them have occupied that area between Gaziantep and the border.

MARTIN: And this is a place that has become the fault line in the Syrian Civil War. I mean, you have both sides basically are using this place as an outpost.

WRIGHT: Well, what's interesting is the Syrian opposition government has set up its new government in Gaziantep. And so everyone passes through Gaziantep at one point. And it's become so important that now there are warnings to Westerners - don't go to any of the new shopping malls, don't go to the new Starbucks. The State Department put out a warning that they were concerned about terrorist attacks. So this is in some ways to the war in Syria what Peshawar, that frontier city in Pakistan, was to the Afghan War when the West was supporting rebels fighting Soviet occupation.

MARTIN: What did you hear from the Syrian rebels when you were in Gaziantep? I mean, these are the people fighting against the regime of the Bashar al-Assad. Is their strategy still clear?

WRIGHT: Well, the problem is you have this disparate array of groups. And they don't have one coordinated strategy. There are estimated to be over 1,000 different militias among the rebels fighting two fronts because there are two separate wars in Syria. There's the one that came out of the 2011 uprising and pits the rebels against the government in Damascus. And there's a totally separate war that it pits the rebels against extremists. The rebels really are kind of fighting it out for control. And the problem is they're having trouble getting fighters now. There is this sense of disillusionment, disheartenment that the war's gone on for a long time. And the outside world is willing to fight ISIS, but not help them.

MARTIN: The U.S. and Turkey have been at odds throughout this. Turkey has pushed the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The U.S. wants Turkey to step up and secure their border so it's not so porous and militants can't go back and forth. What did you learn about that tension between these two supposed allies?

WRIGHT: Well, I actually went down to Kobani on the border. And one thing that's so spooky about it is that you can hear the warplanes flying over all the time, whether they're drones or bombers, fighters. And they have flown hundreds of miles to drop their bombs on ISIS in little Kobani. But right in front of you, right along the border are Turkish tanks and artillery and hundreds of troops who are doing nothing. And they're right there. Their tanks are pointed at Syria. But President Erdogan of Turkey has said that he doesn't want to get involved in the war against ISIS unless the outside world is also going to get involved in the war against the government of Syria.

MARTIN: You've been thinking about this war from all kinds of levels. What does that mean for U.S. policy? What will it take for the U.S. to concede that it has to address the actual civil war?

WRIGHT: This is, in many ways, the most complex war the United States has faced in the Middle East. U.S. strategy now is sequential. The idea is to try to retake Iraq, recreate Iraq along its traditional borders, push ISIS back into Syria. And then in the meantime be strengthening, be building a rebel group that is better trained and better armed and the stakes are not just what happens to the rebels or to the governments. It's whether the outside world really wants to fight for the borders that were defined rather arbitrarily by the Europeans a century ago or whether they're willing to allow these countries and the various factions within them to break up.

MARTIN: Robin Wright. She is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. Thanks so much, Robin.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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