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NATO's Evolving Issues Now Focus On Syria's War And Refugee Crisis


Let's meet the man responsible for keeping NATO strong and influential in 2016. That military alliance was founded almost 70 years ago, largely to blunt the power of the Soviet Union. Well, the enemies today are different. And the world, you might say, is more complicated. That has come into focus recently. NATO countries like the United States are working with a NATO ally, Turkey, to deal with the violent situation in Syria and combat the Islamic State, which some refer to as ISIL. And there are some differences of opinion over this conflict. We spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He was on a noisy sidewalk outside the United Nations in New York.

JENS STOLTENBERG: It has been a challenge to adapt NATO to a new and more difficult security environment. And we are 28 different nations - 28 different democracies, and there will always be different views. I welcome that. That's not a sign of weakness that there are different opinions inside NATO, as long as we're able to make conclusions.

GREENE: Well, if I could bring up one difference of opinion - you know, there are some Kurdish forces who the United States and NATO countries have been working with in the conflict in Syria. Turkey has a different view of some of those forces and believes that those are Kurdish militants who might attack Turkey. And in fact, Mehdi Eker, who is a top politician in President Erdogan's party, spoke to us a week or so ago and said that NATO is arming some Kurdish militias who are turning those NATO weapons against Turkey's military. Is that happening?

STOLTENBERG: I think what we have seen in Syria is that the conflict is extremely complex and that we have so many different groups. My main message is that we have to coordinate. And we have to make sure that we all do whatever we can to coordinate our fight against the ISIL. I welcome the fact that Turkey and United States are sitting down and trying to coordinate even closer their efforts in Syria.

GREENE: But could you respond to that accusation from the Turkish government? I mean, is it possible that there's some Kurdish groups who are using weapons they got from NATO against Turkey's military?

STOLTENBERG: NATO is not present in Syria. NATO is not part of the operations in Syria. What NATO does is that we provide support to the coalition. We are present in Turkey. But when it comes to operational decisions, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL, that's not for NATO because that's decisions taken by the coalition.

GREENE: But if I may, though, there are Kurdish groups that have gotten weapons from NATO countries. Is that right?

STOLTENBERG: There are different groups in Syria that have received training and equipment from NATO allies. But those decisions have not been taken by NATO as an alliance. Those decisions have been taken by the U.S.-led coalition. And since NATO is not on the ground - since NATO is not directly a part of the coalition, all these operational issues has to be decided and also handled by the U.S. coalition.

GREENE: It sounds like this is one of the complexities that you're talking about when it comes to NATO evolving into 2016.

STOLTENBERG: Absolutely. The conflict in Syria is so complex and so dangerous, not least because there are so many different groups that it's hard, in a way, to find the right way to fight ISIL. But at the same time, to stay outside is not an alternative because we have to be present, as NATO allies, through the coalition to fight ISIL.

STOLTENBERG: That was the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. He was speaking to me from the U.N. in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.