As Iraq-Syria Borders Blur, Fears Of A Wider Mideast War Grow
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, sitting in for Rachel Martin. Sunni fighters continued to push their way into Iraq yesterday, capturing a border post with Syria and several key towns and cities as they advanced toward Baghdad. Control of the crossing will make it easier to move weapons across the border. Yesterday's territorial gains bring ISIS fighters closer to their goal of creating a Sunni caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran. As borders begin to blur, concerns are growing that the conflict could turn into a wider war in the Middle East. Here to give us a regional perspective is NPR's Peter Kenyon. He's in Istanbul. Peter, thanks for joining us.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Lynn.
NEARY: Now, you just left nuclear talks between Iran, U.S. and other countries. Did Iraq come up, and do you think that Iran and the U.S. are going to come together over Iraq?
KENYON: Well, it did come up briefly. But the signals from both Tehran and Washington since then have been largely hostile to the idea of cooperation. President Hassan Rouhani is warning against any U.S. intervention, although, at the same time, he says Iran will do whatever it takes to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Now, Iran, of course, has enjoyed a much more prominent role in Iraq since the Americans withdrew. So basically, at this point, Tehran and the Obama administration are very much in sync about not wanting American boots on the ground. One interesting question of late is how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is doing in Tehran these days. After President Obama suggested new leadership might be needed in Baghdad, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric stepped in, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, calling for new government. And we have not heard Tehran aggressively defending Maliki at this point. So that's something to watch.
NEARY: OK, now you're in Turkey. And there's a large Kurdish minority there who want their own state. Kurds in Iraq have moved into areas abandoned by the Iraq military. So are there worries that the chaos in the region will encourage Kurds in Turkey to make territorial demands?
KENYON: Well, I have to say this is an amazing shift in Turkish opinion. I remember a decade ago, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq - for a time, we used to exit via Turkey. And when you got to the border, the one thing that could give people huge problems was any map that had the word Kurdistan on it anywhere. That's how strong the loathing for the Kurds was at that point. Now, 10 years later, Aqra has got good ties with the Kurds in northern Iraq - Chile ties in Baghdad, by the way. And Turkey is selling Kurdish oil over Maliki's strong objections. Just the other day, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling party said, basically, if Iraqi Kurds want to call their territory Kurdistan, that's their business. Now, this is an amazing change. It does not, however, mean that Aqra's ready to cede any Turkish territory to the Kurds. They've got a very shaky peace process going on right now. And if that falls apart, they'll be in a very complicated situation.
NEARY: And what about Lebanon? There are more than a million refugees from Syria in that country. ISIS is advancing. How stable is that country?
KENYON: Well, Lebanon always seems to be on the edge of collapse. But somehow it manages to hang together, mainly because of memories of their horrific civil war a few decades back. The key Lebanese player is the Shiite militia, Hezbollah. And they used to present themselves exclusively as resistance to Israel. But first with the Syria conflict, and now the fighting Iraq, Hezbollah is now seeing itself as defending Shia against Sunni extremism.
NEARY: Yeah. Now, a major Sunni power is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has had contentious relations with Iraqi leader Nouri Al-Maliki. But the Saudis also do not like destabilizing conflicts. So how are they responding to this extremist Sunni violence?
KENYON: They are in a difficult spot. They promote a conservative strain of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, but strongly oppose other conservative strains - the Muslim brotherhood, al-Qaida and now, ISIS. And nonetheless, Saudi money is flowing into these places, along with resources from Qatar, especially into Syria recently. It's played a big role in the Syrian opposition. And ISIS, of course, is very good at acquiring weapons, as it goes along, in every battle. So the well-armed Saudi military rarely makes a move outside of very close neighbors like, say, Yemen or Bahrain. I don't see intervention coming there. But they do have a way of influencing things, especially on the Sunni side.
NEARY: NPR's Peter Kenyon, talking to us about the regional reaction to the fighting in Iraq from his home base in Istanbul. Peter, thank so much for being with us.
KENYON: You're welcome, Lynn.
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