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U.S., Turkey Divided On Support For Rebel Forces In Syria


One dilemma for the U.S. approach to the long Syrian civil war has been which groups to back against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. only recently agreed with its ally, Turkey, on training some so-called moderate rebel forces, but that's being overshadowed by a joint effort between Turkey and Arab countries to support more radical rebels who are already in the fight. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this story from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As far as most Turks can tell, their government has a unique Syria policy - that is, one that none of its allies agrees with. Analyst Ersin Kalaycioglu at Sabanci University puts it this way.

ERSIN KALAYCIOGLU: So far as foreign policy is concerned, Turkey's now pretty much isolated.

KENYON: But recently, the Syrian opposition - a chaotic mix of moderate, religious and extremist fighters - is making gains on the ground, and that does seem to be at least partly due to a Turkish alliance with two countries it has rarely agreed with - Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Disputes among those three countries over which opposition groups to support in Syria have diluted the force of the rebellion for years, but Syria analyst Emile Hokayem, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says for now at least, the Saudis - fearful as ever of Iran's role in Syria - seem to have convinced the Turks and Qataris to get on board.

EMILE HOKAYEM: The policies of these three countries are aligning, and basically, they want to deal severe setbacks to Assad, primarily in the north and the northwest. And this has proven quite effective in the past two months. The question is, what next?

KENYON: One of the problems facing Washington is, while it battles the self-proclaimed Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, it can't be sure that the Saudi, Qatari, Turkish aid isn't reaching other fighters, especially those on the U.S. terror list. One of the most powerful is an al-Qaida affiliate known as the Nusra Front. To varying degrees, the Saudis and the Turks are willing to support Nusra fighters, while the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against the group. As a result, American officials are trying to insist that opposition aid should be flowing to more moderate opposition groups, but their Sunni Muslim allies in the region seem to be taking increasingly independent action.

As to where Syria may be headed, the Obama administration says there is no military solution in Syria and diplomatic talks are needed. But Hokayem says the gains being made by a reinvigorated opposition don't bode well for peace talks, nor does Assad's worsening situation.

HOKAYEM: Sadly, no. I don't think Assad's weakening is making him more willing to negotiate his own fate. So if anything, I think that current conditions will lead to more fighting and a soft partition of Syria, rather than a political process.

KENYON: While Washington struggles to keep support focused on its preferred, non-Islamist rebel groups, Syrians - including those swelling the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere - are preparing for another summer of heat and war. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.