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Biden To Try To Smooth U.S. Relations With Turkey


Turkey has sent tanks into Syria this morning, according to eyewitness reports in the region. This is part of a U.S.-led effort to clear Islamic State fighters from the Turkish border. Turkish and U.S. jets are reportedly providing air support. This new stage in the campaign follows a suicide bombing at a wedding in Turkey last weekend that killed at least 54 people. Turkey says ISIS was responsible. As it happens, Vice President Joe Biden is in Turkey today for meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is the highest-level U.S. visit to Turkey since that failed coup attempt that led to a crisis in relations between these two countries. Joining us this morning we have NPR's Istanbul correspondent, Peter Kenyon, on the line and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in the studio with us. Good morning to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.


GREENE: So, Peter, let's start with you. What is happening right now on the Turkish-Syrian border?

KENYON: Well, just hours before Joe Biden landed here, Turkish artillery unleashed a major barrage into northern Syria. And then Turkish F-16s took off. They fired airstrikes on Islamic State targets from the border area as far as Aleppo, we're told. State media say Turkish special forces entered Syria on the ground. And TV footage that I've seen looks like it's showing Turkish tanks operating across the border as well. So this is a U.S.-led coalition operation. They're trying to clear ISIS from the border area, but it's with unusually heavy Turkish participation this time.

GREENE: And Aleppo is a city we hear about so much because it was rebel-held and just being pounded by Syrian government and Russian forces, right? So I mean, this could be some sort of way to change the dynamic there.

KENYON: The initial focus is closer to the border - a city called Jarabulus. But yes, there have been reports of air strikes hitting in Aleppo as well. And the foreign minister says this is not going to stop right there at the border.

GREENE: OK, so we'll have to watch this closely in the coming hours and days. Tom Bowman, let me turn to you because, I mean, for these two countries - the U.S. and Turkey - to work together, not surprising. I mean, they have been allies in the fight against ISIS for some time. Talk about that relationship.

BOWMAN: Well, David, the most important part of that relationship now is that U.S. warplanes and surveillance aircraft fly out of Turkey's Incirlik Air Base to go after ISIS targets. And we're seeing that right now with this fight along Turkey's border. Now, before the U.S. started bombing runs out of Incirlik last summer, they had to use Persian Gulf bases and aircraft carriers, you know, a good distance away. One Obama administration official last summer called Incirlik a game-changer against ISIS. The other thing is that the U.S. needs Turkey to stop the flow of ISIS fighters from going across the border into Syria. That's a key goal here to shut down that border. And the hope is, when that happens, ISIS will just kind of whither on the vine in Syria.

GREENE: So, Peter Kenyon, so much on the line here in a relationship that seems to have gotten very tense and very strained since that failed coup. Why is that? Why the strain?

KENYON: Well, there's been a big spike in anti-American sentiment here, and it's not being discouraged by the government. Some say it's actually encouraging it. Rumors the U.S. had a hand in the coup. Washington denies any involvement. Also, President Erdogan has turned east. He's visited Moscow. He's talking about going to Iran. So this visit is really a chance to show the Turkish-American relationship is a long-running one. It's suffered through some rough patches in the past and has always come through. I have to say, though, diplomats on both sides are telling me this is the worst they've seen it in decades.

GREENE: And, Tom, I mean, is this new offensive on the border, I mean, evidence that, despite these tensions, the U.S. and Turkey can work together, or could there be some real problems here?

BOWMAN: Well, I think they can work together. You know, one of the things is there is tension in the relationship, that, you know, a lot of the Turkish officers studying at war colleges in the in the U.S. have been sent home. And with this coup attempt, a lot of the Turkish officers - hundreds of them - senior officers have been removed from their positions. So one of the concerns the U.S. has is that, listen, who's going to replace these senior officers we've been working with in this anti-ISIS fight? Will they be competent? Will they be sort of lackeys for Erdogan? Who will they be?

GREENE: Peter, I mean - I mean, there's this obsession in Turkey with trying to find this U.S. cleric - this extradited cleric who, you know, the Turkish government believes was responsible for the coup. That's been denied. I mean, is there a sense that Turkey is so obsessed with that that they might not be focused enough on keeping this relationship tight as - you know, as this military action happens?

KENYON: It's a worry. The top officials say that there's no shift in the relationship fundamentally, but we'll have to watch it. I mean, Gulen lives in Pennsylvania. Many Turks think he was behind the coup. They want him to face charges. It is a huge sore point here. And the vice president is unlikely to have any real news on this issue today. Extraditions take a long time. There's legal standards that have to be met. And Turkey's not showing much patience so far.

GREENE: So what should we look for in this visit from Joe Biden?

KENYON: Well, I think the key is how Biden is treated. He's going to be meeting with President Erdogan. We shouldn't be looking for huge breakthroughs, but if there is a warm and friendly reception or something chillier, that'll be the big, major tone. And then we'll have to watch and see if Turkey is really leaning east or west in the near-term here.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and with NPR's Istanbul correspondent, Peter Kenyon, about the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Vice President Joe Biden is in the country today. And there are reports of an offensive that has begun, Turkish tanks going across the border into Syria, which we'll be following as well. Thank you both so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.