STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United Nations Security Council is meeting today. It's an emergency session about Turkey's invasion of Syria. This is the second day of the incursion. Turkish troops, we're told, are attacking Kurdish forces along the border region by land and by air. These are the same Kurdish troops who have been allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS. Turkish forces were able to launch this attack after President Trump decided to move U.S. troops out of the way. Even the president's most vocal allies in Congress and in evangelical Christian circles have been condemning this decision.
Joining us now by Skype is Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria during the Obama administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Good morning, sir.
ROBERT FORD: Good morning.
INSKEEP: And we should note that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has defended the president's decision to pull some troops out of the way of Turkey. He spoke last night to the "PBS NewsHour," and let's hear some of what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")
MIKE POMPEO: The Turks have a legitimate security concern. They have a terrorist threat to their south.
INSKEEP: A legitimate security concern. OK. There are Kurds there. Is it a terrorist threat to their south, though?
FORD: I think, to be honest, no. Not really. The Turks made allegations in 2016 that some terrorists who hit Turkish targets inside Turkey came out of the Syrian Kurdish-controlled area, but that was a few years ago. Since then, I have seen no serious Turkish allegations of terror attacks coming out of Syria.
INSKEEP: What if we drop that loaded word terrorist and just talk about a political threat to their south. It is true - is it not? - that Turkey includes ethnic Kurds. They have had nationalist aspirations in the past. There may be nationalists on the southern - certainly are nationalists on the southern side of the border as well in Syria. And Turkey just doesn't want Kurds to have too much authority because it threatens the Turkish state.
FORD: I think you have hit the nail exactly on the head. This is essentially a political problem. Turkey worries that if there is a Kurdish mini-state in northeastern Syria, that mini-state will then create political problems among Turkish Kurdish communities on the other side of the border.
INSKEEP: We have heard of the complexities, to say the least, that this causes for the United States. First, U.S. Kurdish allies are endangered. Second, there is the danger of an opening for ISIS. Given that the president has gone ahead with this move and moved U.S. troops out, given that Turkey has gone ahead with its offensive, the question then becomes, can those concerns be managed? And if so, how?
FORD: The Syrian Kurdish - I...
INSKEEP: I feel like the long pause there, Ambassador, might have been your answer. But go right on, go right on, please.
FORD: No, I'm thinking. It's an excellent question. So key points - first, the Syrian Kurdish fighters and others in the Syrian Democratic Forces that we have supported, they themselves have an interest in ensuring that those thousands of ISIS prisoners remain in detention. If not, they're going to trickle right back up into areas that the Syrian Kurdish militias expelled them from in the first place, their own communities. So that's first. Second, when we think about ISIS over the long term, it's a political, economic and social set of grievances that spawned ISIS. And Kurdish militias are not really the long-term fix.
INSKEEP: Meaning that someone else does need to take over that territory that was not really that stable a situation to begin with.
FORD: Precisely. In a sense, there is already friction between some of the Arab communities and some of these Kurdish militias. And so there has to be a transition over time. How that is done? Frankly, I see no discussion of that. And how American forces - say 500 or a thousand U.S. special operations forces - help that process also is not being discussed.
INSKEEP: Do you mean to say there has to be a transition to some kind of unified Syrian government?
FORD: I think, in the long term, only reassertion of Syrian government control over eastern Syria provides a durable stability, a durable security. And nobody dislikes the Syrian government more than me. But I think we have to be realistic. If the Americans are going to stay there forever - if American forces are going to stay in eastern Syria as far out as the eye can see, it's going to be a source of friction and instability.
INSKEEP: Robert Ford is the former United States ambassador to Syria - in fact, the last and most recent U.S. ambassador to Syria. He's now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. He joined us via Skype. Ambassador, thanks so much.
FORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.