Mattis says Turkish op drawing off anti-ISIS forces

Turkey's cross-border operation in Syria's Afrin is causing the Kurds to redeploy some forces away from the fight with Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said late on Sunday ahead of a critical meeting with his Turkish counterpart.

The operation, which began three weeks ago, "is drawing off some of the Syrian Democratic Forces" when "they see their fellow Kurds in Afrin under attack," Mattis told a group of jourrnalists on a trip to the Middle East and Europe. Mattis is due to meet Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli this week in Brussels to discuss the situations in Afrin and neighbouring Manbij in northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening American forces stationed in Manbij to withdraw for some time. American experts have described the situation in Manbij as "extraordinary dangerous and volatile" to Ahval.

"Kurds... see their fellow Kurds in Afrin under attack, so that is causing at least their attention to shift up there," Mattis said. "In some cases, some of the troops have drawn off to there. Not a significant number right now, but you know, between the concentration of ISIS and the distraction of Afrin, then you've got tough fighting down along the line.. in what we call the Middle Euphrates River Valley."

Mattis, when asked about relations with Turkey, conceded to the fact that there were areas of disagreement that both sides continue to work on, but reiterated that "Turkey is a NATO ally. It is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its own border."

Mattis, without elaborating on the state of the relationship between Turkey and the United States, said: "We are assisting Turkey, a number of the nations are assisting Turkey, in terms of missile defense and counter-terrorism.  And we continue to work on the areas of disagreement, which is how do we take down ISIS as rapidly as possible.

"But they (Turkey) have a legitimate security concern, and we do not dismiss one bit of that, along that border with Syria.  I mean, I don't care whether you're Israel or Lebanon, you're Jordan, Iraq or Turkey, you have legitimate political, you have legitimate security concerns."

Mattis chose not to talk about Manbij in the conversation but emphasized that the situation was "very complex" when it came to the military campaign in the region, adding that the U.S. "is going to continue to work closely with Turkey. Our militaries meet daily right now."

Over the weekend, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke with Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and the readouts from both capitals said Turkey and the United States reaffirmed the long-term strategic partnership, again with no mention of Manbij or Afrin.