US Defense Secretary says attacks on Afrin distract Kurds from fight against Islamic State

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg    


Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday called the attacks by Turkey on Afrin, launched on 20 January, ‘a distraction’ and said that the Kurds inside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are worried about Afrin which is causing their attention to shift away from ISIS.

“You've got the distraction of what's going on up in Afrin right now, which is drawing off some of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have got about 50 percent -- that's probably not a firm percentage; could be less, could be more that are Kurds,” he said.

The official confirmed that some fighters from the East of the Euphrates have travelled to Afrin to fight back the Turkish attacks.

“So they see their fellow Kurds in Afrin under attack, so that is causing at least their attention to shift up there.  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 on contact there, in what we call the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” he added.

Nevertheless, the US Defense Secretary still sees Turkey as an ally and stopped short of calling an end to the attacks by Turkey.

“Turkey is a NATO ally.  It is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its own border,” he said.

“We are assisting Turkey, a number of the nations are assisting Turkey, in terms of missile defence 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,” he added. 

“But they have a legitimate security concern, and we do not dismiss one bit of that, along that border with Syria,” he stated. “It's tough, and we're going to continue to work closely with Turkey.  Our militaries meet daily right now, so that's on,” he added.

CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale in January told the Region in January that relations continue with the Turkish military, despite threats by Turkey to attack Manbij, informing them about where US troops are in northern Syria.

“The Turkish military has been keeping us informed of their intentions daily. And we work to do the same with Turkey, informing them where our troops are, our security concerns, and about our actions supporting partners against ISIS,” he said.

“We recognize Turkey's legitimate security concerns and are working on a path forward that also keeps up the pressure on ISIS. We stand by our NATO ally, and will continue working the military aspects of solutions that address Turkish concerns,” the coalition official added.

U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster met with senior Turkish officials Sunday to review ties with Turkey reported the Washington Times.

However, top U.S. military commanders that recently visited Manbij, have said the Pentagon is not considering any withdrawal of U.S. forces from Manbij or the larger eastern Euphrates River Valley.

“It signals that the U.S. perspective, Manbij is key to the counter-ISIS campaign. And that the SDF control over Manbij is a vital part to combating ISIS,” Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told The Region.

“The SDF still has active combat operations going on against ISIS in Deir Azzour. Until those operations are complete, the U.S. military will be loathed to take away the SDF's support,” he added.