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How The Kurds Are Succeeding In Iraq

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kurdish forces have scored a lot of successes in recent weeks. They've recaptured a strategic town in northern Syria from the so-called Islamic state with the help of U.S. airstrikes. That might be in contrast to the setbacks to Iraqi forces. U.S. airstrikes have also tried to support Iraqi security forces on the ground but without much of the same success. The U.S. has been training local troops in Iraq to retake land captured by ISIS, but just this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the training has been slow because there aren't enough Iraqi recruits. Joshua Landis writes the Syria Comment blog; he's director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma and joins us now from Norman. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, it's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Do U.S. and Kurdish forces have, what I'll call, a special relationship?

LANDIS: Yes, they do. They were about to be wiped out in a town called - a city called Kobani on the edge of the Syrian Desert, right up against the Turkish border. ISIS had surrounded them - was pushing them out. And the U.S. thought that they were going to be completely destroyed, but they began to bomb in front of them, and the Kurds turned into an incredible fighting force, and they developed a close relationship. The U.S. Air Force allowed them to call in airstrikes, and it turned into a relationship that's been quite close.

SIMON: And how do you contrast that with the U.S. and Iraqi forces?

LANDIS: Well, the Iraqi forces are a mess, and the U.S. is very worried about these Shiite militias. They are supported by Iran. The United States does not like the disunity. It doesn't want to help the Shiite militias serve as a military. It doesn't believe that they're much better than ISIS. So, the United States has hung back in Iraq in a way that it has not with the Kurds. It has developed a close relationship with the Kurds. The Kurds are very united. And once they realized the Kurds were plucky fighters, they were organized, they were very grateful to the Americans, this relationship blossomed. And they became the one partner in Syria that could really help the United States push back at ISIS because the United States doesn't have any other partners in Syria. It doesn't want to side with the Assad Regime and it doesn't want to side with many of the other rebel forces in which al-Qaida plays a big role.

SIMON: A question that, I guess, must be raised is the ultimate strategic object of Kurdish forces in Syria to join, ultimately, an independent Kurdish state or something else?

LANDIS: No, it is. It is. Many Kurds want an independent Kurdish state, and that's what makes the neighbors so fearful because the Arabs believe that they are going to lose a hunk of their country. And the Turks, also, are fearful that if this Kurdish state expands into part of Syria, that the Kurds in Turkey will also begin to demand a greater Kurdistan and that Turkey could lose some of their territory as well.

SIMON: Which raises another question. The more successful Kurdish forces become in Syria, for that matter in Iraq, does it become harder for U.S. policy to not wind up endorsing an independent Kurdish state because, after all, Kurdish forces have shed blood for the United States.

LANDIS: I think that's what many people in the region fear. And Erdogan just said, the other day, the West has shot at Arabs and Turkmens. In a sense, Erdogan is accusing United States of helping the Kurds carry out ethnic cleansing in Tal Abyad, this big new town that they've taken over. And he's livid and so are many of the Syrian rebel groups. They've been tweeting like mad - talking about how the United States is pursuing a minoritarian policy, helping the Kurds take land from the Arabs, that they're anti-Arab and they're anti-Muslim. So, the United States has to be careful. It can't push this policy of siding with the Kurds too far. And, in some ways, I think taking Tal Abyad is the end of the line for U.S. policy of using the Kurds to roll back the Islamic State.

SIMON: Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks much for being with us.

LANDIS: Well, it's a pleasure. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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