WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – On Sunday, as he flew to Indonesia, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters traveling with him that Turkey “warned us” before its assault began on Saturday on the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
Mattis explained that US military officials received a phone call from Turkish military officials and that the communication was at a high level. However, he did not reveal the US response to the Turkish notification, including whether it cautioned against an attack.
Mattis spoke sympathetically of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group that leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and constitutes the majority of its troops. The SDF has been America’s main ally in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
“They have proven their effectiveness,” Mattis said. “It has cost them thousands of casualties, but you have watched them, with coalition support, shred [IS’] caliphate in Syria.”
However, he also expressed sympathy with Ankara’s position.
“Turkey is a NATO ally,” Mattis stated. “It’s the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders. And Turkey has legitimate security concerns.”
Some 2,000 US troops are deployed in Syria, but they are east of Afrin and not threatened by the Turkish offensive “at this time,” the Defense Secretary said.
US officials are in ongoing contact with their Turkish counterparts. “Our top levels are engaged,” Mattis affirmed. “We’ll work this out.”
Also on Sunday, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement explaining that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had spoken with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the day before.
Tillerson emphasized to his counterparts that the US “is very concerned about the situation in northwest Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians who are now faced with an escalation in fighting.”
“We continue to be supportive of addressing the legitimate security concerns of Turkey as a NATO Ally and critical partner in the effort to defeat [IS],” Nauert’s statement continued.
“However, we urge Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties,” she added. And “we call on all parties to remain focused on the central goal of defeating [IS.]”
Russia has taken Turkey’s side in this crisis. Lavrov complained on Friday that the US is “creating alternative government bodies on a vast part of Syrian territory,” while Russia’s Defense Ministry on Saturday said that the US was responsible for the Turkish assault because of its “uncontrolled deliveries of modern weapons” to the YPG.
An emergency session of the UN Security Council, convened at France’s request, will be held later on Monday.
Editing by Nadia Riva