By Safvan Allahverdi
WASHINGTON (AA) - U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday he will meet with his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli in Brussels next week amid U.S. concern over Turkey’s plans to launch a military operation in Manbij, Syria.
The U.S. will continue to work with Turkey at "the highest levels and all the way down through the military level", Mattis told reporters during a visit to the Pentagon's press office.
"We will continue to work with our NATO ally [Turkey], and I will see their Minister of Defense in Brussels next week."
Mattis was referring to Turkey’s plan to launch a military operation in Manbij, a strategically important city west of the Euphrates in northern Syria, as part of Operation Olive Branch.
Manbij lies northeast of Aleppo but just south of the Turkish border.
Washington has voiced concern about the safety of U.S. troops in Manbij amid Turkey's ongoing operation in northeastern Syria. There are about 2,000 American soldiers in Manbij.
Mattis said there has been no change in terms of Turkey's pressure on Manbij in response to a question about Turkey's concern over the presence of PYD/PKK terrorists there.
"Obviously, there is a lot of concern there because of what we heard out of Ankara. But right now, our goal is to keep the pressure on [through] the counter ISIS [Daesh] campaign and keep the campaign going, Mattis said, describing Turkey's planned military operation in Manbij as a "distraction" from the fight against Daesh.
Describing Turkey as "the only NATO ally with an active insurgency inside its border with the PKK terrorist group," Mattis said the U.S. is working with Turkey on its legitimate security concerns not just with the PKK but also along the Syrian border, which has been turned into a battlefield by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
"Turkey has legitimate concerns, and the U.S. is working with Ankara. But at the same time, Washington wants to stay on Daesh right now," he added.
Amid the operation, the PYD/PKK has targeted civilians in cross-border attacks on Turkish neighborhoods, martyring at least five people and injuring more than 100 through mortar shells, artillery and missiles, according to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
In addition to border security, the Turkish General Staff says Operation Olive Branch is meant to protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.
Following the Afrin operation, Turkey plans to clear Manbij and some other areas from PYD/PKK terrorists.
The U.S. supports the PYD/PKK, which is considered by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terror organization that has waged a more than 30-year war against the Turkish state. The terror campaign has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
The PYD/PKK is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.
American support for the terror group has long vexed Ankara as Washington views the PYD/PKK-led umbrella group SDF as a "reliable partner" in its fight against Daesh and continues to provide it with arms and equipment in the face of strong objections from Turkey.