Turkey alerted US before Syria operation, Mattis says

US secretary of defence is seeking to continue "top level" engagement with all sides

TOPSHOT - Turkish army tanks gather close to the Syrian border on January 21, 2018 at Hassa, in Hatay province. 
Turkish forces on January 20, 2018, began a major new operation aimed at ousting the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia from Afrin, pounding dozens of targets from the sky in air raids and with artillery. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in the Turkish southeast for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
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The United States indicated on Sunday that Washington is not seeking an escalation with Turkey over its continuing military action against the US-backed YPG in Afrin, but is in contact with Ankara in tracking the operation.

“Turkey was candid. They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it,” US secretary of defence James Mattis told media on his plane bound for Asia. “We’ll work this out,” he said, acknowledging that Turkey has “legitimate security concerns”.

At the same time, Mr Mattis praised the effectiveness of YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combating ISIL. “It has cost them thousands of casualties, but you have watched them, with coalition support, shred ISIL’s caliphate in Syria, and that’s a matter of arithmetic,” he said.

Still that success “does not remove many of Turkey’s concerns,” Mr Mattis said, calling Turkey “the only Nato country with an active insurgency inside its borders”.

A similar sentiment was expressed by the US state department, saying in a statement that secretary of state Rex Tillerson had made phone calls to his Turkish and Russian counterparts, Mevlut Çavuşoglu and Sergey Lavrov, to discuss the situation.

“The United States is very concerned about the situation in north-west Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians who are now faced with an escalation in fighting,” representatives in Washington said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least eight civilians have been killed since Turkish air strikes began on Saturday.

The state department encouraged Turkey “to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties”, calling on all parties “to remain focused on the central goal of defeating ISIL”.

Washington appeared to be walking a thin line in keeping channels open with Turkey and acknowledging its concerns as a Nato ally, while at the same time trying to prevent the weakening of its anti-ISIL troop coalition and an intra Kurdish-Turkish fight in Syria that would distract from the counter-terrorism objective.

The Afrin battle comes less than a week after Mr Tillerson announced a new US strategy for Syria, promising a  continuing presence of about 2,000 US troops in the country.