- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2018

Defense Secretary James Mattis says the there should be no question about the U.S. military alliance with Turkey or Ankara’s commitment to NATO, despite despite deep disagreements over the way forward in Syria’s war.

“Having an alliance doesn’t mean you don’t have issues between allies,” Mr. Mattis told reporters over the weekend, just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S.-Turkey relationship is “at a bit of a crisis point.”

Mr. Tillerson — during a visit to Ankara late last week — also attempted to put a positive spin on the situation, asserting that “the relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies… for us not to do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

While Turkey hosts about 1,500 American military personnel, as well as aircraft, uncertainty continues to swirl around how the two nations will overcome major differences in Syria amid Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outrage at Washington’s backing of Kurdish forces there that Ankara claims are “terrorists.”

The spark for the sharp downturn in relations has been Turkey’s nearly month-old military campaign against the U.S.-allied forces in the northern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, with Mr. Erdogan and his aides saying the Turkish army’s offensive will expand despite the presence of U.S. military special forces in their path.

The Erdogan government is angry over the U.S. military’s support for the so-called People’s Protection Units, a mainly Kurdish group known by the acronym YPG. While Washington has for years relied on the group as a go-to proxy ground force against Islamic State in Syria, Turkey sees the YPG as an organization tied to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging an often violent separatist battle with Ankara since the 1980s.

The situation has triggered concern in Washington that the Erdogan government may be shifting increasingly toward an alignment with Russia. It has also found American officials walking an increasingly careful line in their rhetoric toward Turkey.

Mr. Mattis, who spoke with reporters flying back to Washington with him from a trip to Europe on Saturday, said U.S. officials “understand” Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns,” but that Washington is frustrated by the ongoing Turkish military incursion into Afrin.

At the same time, the defense secretary said, U.S. officials are “going to work with Turkey” to resolve the situation. “We have many areas of absolute concurrence,” he said. “Remember that, they are an ally. We work with them. You see France, you see Spain, you see Italy working with them. So this is not an all-one-way issue.”

Mr. Mattis suggested Mr. Tillerson had successful meetings with Turkish leaders during last week’s visit to Ankara.

“There are significant issues that the secretary of state and his foreign minister counterpart agreed that we would work through,” he said. “I can’t tell you that we’ve resolved them all. That means we’re going to work through them. We’re committed to them. That’s where we’re going.”

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