Regional Tensions Rise After Russian Strikes Violate Turkish Airspace
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Russian air campaign that's seen daily strikes in Syria has now been going on for a full week, and it's raising regional tensions. Today, Turkey, NATO and the U.S. criticized Russian flights that left Syria over the weekend and entered Turkish airspace. Here's U.S. secretary of state John Kerry on that.
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JOHN KERRY: We're greatly concerned about it because it is precisely the kind of thing that, had turkey responded under its rights, could have resulted in a shootdown.
MCEVERS: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following all of this from Turkey, and we reached him in Istanbul. And Peter, how serious were these air incursions?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, no air-to-air combat, but people are definitely concerned. On Saturday, Turkish jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian aircraft that had crossed into Hatay province in the Southeast. Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador, demanded an explanation from Moscow.
Then it happened again on Sunday. Russia says it was an accident. The weather wasn't great. But NATO's secretary general says he doubts that. He says it's unlikely to have such an accidental incursion two times in a row. And as we heard Secretary Kerry point out, anything that runs the risk of a NATO country shooting down a Russian jet needs to be taken seriously.
MCEVERS: It sounds like things are pretty tense. Is anything being done to calm things down?
KENYON: Well, we're hearing some calls for calm from both the Russian and U.S. sides but really no serious engagement yet. Each side is basically calling on the other to reach out and communicate more to avoid any conflicts.
MCEVERS: I mean, this dispute over airspace violations is just the latest sign of the increasing tensions in Syria. Remind us how this situation came about in the first place.
KENYON: Well, basically, Russia and the U.S. have very different agendas in Syria despite what they say from time to time. A week ago, Russia dramatically changed the dynamic when it began this air campaign. They began by hitting all opponents of the government, not just the Islamic State - in fact, not very much the Islamic State. Turkey and, to some extent, Washington keep saying Assad has no place in Syria's future. That's the Syrian president. And the primary threat to Syria is ISIS. So we're left with two air campaigns with different goals in a relatively small battle space.
MCEVERS: Right. As you say, Russia says it's helping the Syrian government defeat the Islamic State or ISIS, but they're still not hitting very many ISIS targets to date. I mean, what is the latest from the actual battlefield?
KENYON: Well, the latest reports you're getting are about Russian strikes that did hit in ISIS-controlled territory around Palmyra, where the destruction of historic monuments is continuing, also in parts of Aleppo province in the North. And there were also strikes reported near Raqqah, which is the de facto ISIS capital in Syria. This is in a pretty big contrast to the first days of the campaign where we saw hits on other rebel groups, some of which are backed by the U.S.
Now, what really concerns U.S. military officials who've been speaking to NPR is the prospect of Russian ground-based weaponry - rockets and things like that - being pushed to the frontlines in Central and Northern Syria where the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army units are located.
MCEVERS: And officials in Turkey are also warning about grave consequences of these Russian airstrikes. What are they talking about?
KENYON: Well, one Turkish official is saying that if these airstrikes continue to escalate, one thing we're going to see is a lot more refugees pouring into Turkey. This official says anywhere from hundreds of thousands to a million more Syrians could be forced onto the refugee trail. All of which is something Europe will be desperately unhappy to hear as it struggles to figure out where to put the refugees that have already arrived. Here in Turkey, critics of the European response to the migrant crisis say they might do well to remember that the real misery is being suffered by the Syrians.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you so much.
KENYON: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.