A picture taken on February 2, 2018 in the town of Afrin shows Amed Kendal, a military commander of the YPJ, displaying a picture of late 23-year-old Barin Kobani. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The United States stands by Turkey "100 percent" when rockets come over a border in northern Iraq or Syria.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked about Turkey's assault on the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in Syria.
“[W]hen rockets come over a border, or insurgents come over a border — and not just in — in this Syria complex situation, but also out of northern Iraq and all — then we are with Turkey 100 percent,” he said.
The Kurdish armed group in control of Afrin strongly deny they are behind cross-border rocket attacks.
The US-led international coalition to defeat ISIS has armed and trained the Kurdish-led YPG through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
"Turkey, number one, is a NATO ally; number two, they’re the only NATO ally that confronts an active insurgency on their own home territory," he said.
Turkey routinely conducts air strikes against Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) locations in the Kurdistan Region, sometimes wounding civilians.
"[N]umber three, it is by a group of PKK, a named terrorist group by the US State Department, and they have murdered innocent Turks," added Mattis. "That is the legitimacy of the Turkish concern."
Mattis was asked specifically about the mutiliation and torture
of female Kurdish fighters in Afrin at the hands of "free Syrian army rebels."
"See, right now, we're at a point where ISIS is on the ropes," replied Mattis, re-iterating that the "we need to keep the pressure on."
The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a proxy force used by Turkey in Syria, who have been at the forefront of the attacks in Afrin, and if successful, will divide and control one of Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan's three cantons.
"So this is a distraction in an area that we thought had been relatively quiet, Afrin," he added.
The People's Protection Units (YPG) is the dominate force in Afrin, Syria, where there have been no credible reports of ISIS.
Turkey has claimed its 'Operation Olive Branch' is to provide border security against "terrorists." Ankara conflates the YPG, PKK, and ISIS. The YPG deny any organic links to the PKK.
The PKK, with its headquarters in the mountainous Qandil region, is a banned party in Turkey that has waged an off-and-on armed insurgency against the Turkish state, seeking greater political and cultural rights for the Kurds and Alawites.
Mattis denied a US troop presence in Afrin and support for the PKK.
"And oftentimes when you get up to the level of decision-makers in governments, you don't get the choice of great decision or bad decision, it — it's how do you balance the competing interests?" he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported 68 civilian deaths, including 21 children and 12 women, and another 195 injured in Afrin. The UK-based conflict monitor warned that the death toll may rise because some injuries are severe.