WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis said the United States is deeply worried about Turkey’s ongoing incursion into northern Syria, saying the offensive is “exacerbating the humanitarian crisis,” disrupting what was a stable area of Syria and distracting from the fight against ISIS.
Mattis, on a tour of south Asia, said Pentagon and other U.S. officials are trying to engage the Turks over the military action but have been essentially rebuffed — all while Turkish forces are ranging closer to where U.S troops are operating.
“Our top levels are engaged,” Mattis told reporters. “Both Turkey and the American side. And we’re working through it.”
Mattis added some framing of the NATO member’s situation, noting that Turkey “is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders. And Turkey has legitimate security concerns.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also called on Turkey to exercise restraint in the offensive against the Syrian Kurds, in comments to reporters in London on Monday. However, Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed the calls, saying that Turkey “respects the territorial integrity of Syria” and knows “when to pull back,” according to reports.
Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against the U.S.-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish fighters near its border continued into a fourth day Tuesday with the stated objective of creating a 19-mile-wide safe swath along the border. Turkish troops and its allies, the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels, advanced on the YPG-controlled town of Afrin despite the calls for restraint and an emergency meeting o the U.N. Security Council.
“Afrin will be sorted out. We will take no step back,” Erdoğan said Monday. He said Turkey had reached an agreement with Russia — a key ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — over the operation but did not divulge any details.
The swiftness of the attack has brought Turkish troops closer to the Kurdish enclave of Manbij where the U.S. has forces and allies on the ground. That could ignite shooting between elements allied with the two NATO nations.
On Monday, Turkey reiterated its calls for the U.S. to stop its support for the YPG, charging Kurdish fighters were using U.S.-supplied weapons against Turkish troops.
As fighting raged in the newest front in Syria, the head of U.S. Central Command Army, Gen. Joseph Votel, called for efforts to rebuild and stabilize Raqqa upon his visit to the destroyed Syrian city on Monday, the Pentagon said. That city was formerly claimed by ISIS as its capital and was retaken by U.S.-backed forces last October with the assistance of coalition airstrikes.
Pentagon estimates have the number of ISIS loyalists hovering around 10,000.