U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has shifted some of its fighters to Afrin region, which has been the target of a Turkish military offensive over the past three weeks.
Mr. Mattis expressed understanding over Ankara’s motives for launching its operation, saying that Turkey has legitimate security concerns over its Syria border
“The distraction of what’s going on up in Afrin right now, which is drawing off some of the [SDF] forces, which have got about 50 percent [of the Afrin region],” he added.
The U.S. alignment with SDF remains a sore point in relations between two NATO allies.
Ankara urged its ally to make a choice between Turkey and its militia ally in northern Syria.
On Sunday, U.S. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
“During their meeting, Kalın and McMaster affirmed the long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, and discussed the priorities and concerns of both countries,” White House said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due in Ankara later this week for talks aimed at finding a way forward as Washington expresses severe alarm over the campaign against Kurdish militia.
“Our relations are at a very critical point. They will either be fixed or these ties will be completely damaged,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised comment in Istanbul.
Turkey launched a military offensive in an effort to eliminate Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) presence in Afrin. The YPG dominates the bulk of U.S.-allied SDF, the major fighting force in the battle against Islamic State over the past four years.
The Turkish forces and allies rebels face a stiff resistance from YPG fighters in mountainous parts of Afrin region across the Turkish border. On Saturday, YPG shot down a Turkish military helicopter.
In addition to two pilots killed aboard the helicopter, nine more Turkish soldiers were separately killed in clashes with the Kurdish militants. It was the bloodiest day for the Turkish troops since the start of the offensive.
Ankara remains enraged over the U.S. commitment to the Kurdish militia. It bedevils a healthy relationship between two NATO allies, risks jeopardizing the coalition efforts to crush the remaining elements of ISIS in the countryside of northern Syria.
Turkey’s ties with the U.S. are also strained over the presence of a Turkish cleric in the U.S. Turkish government seeks extradition of Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gulen who is accused of orchestrating the failed coup in 2016.
The cleric has denied charges and strongly condemned the attempted coup. The Turkish push also failed to convince the U.S. authorities over the cleric’s links to the putsch.