UPDATES BACKGROUND, EDITS THROUGHOUT; HEADLINE AND DECK CHANGED
By Safvan Allahverdi
WASHINGTON (AA) - U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis late Sunday acknowledged that some members of the terrorist PYD/PKK-led SDF had shifted to Afrin, Syria amid Turkey’s ongoing operation against terror groups in the border region.
"The distraction of what's going on up in Afrin right now, which is drawing off some of the [SDF] forces, which have got about 50 percent," Mattis told reporters during his flight to Europe, adding that the percentage could be less or more.
As for the reason for the terror group's mobilization to Afrin, he said the terror group believes "their fellow Kurds" in Afrin to be under attack, referring to Turkey's Operation Olive Branch in the northwestern Syrian province to clear PYD/PKK elements from there.
The U.S. has long supported the PYD/PKK-led SDF as a “reliable ally” in its fight against Daesh, over the strong objections of Ankara, which had documented that it is the Syrian branch of the terrorist PKK.
The PKK -- listed as a terrorist group by the U.S., EU, and Turkey -- has taken some 40,000 lives in Turkey, including 1,200 since July 2015.
Describing Turkey as the only NATO ally with an active insurgency facing it, Mattis also reiterated that Ankara has real security concerns in the region.
"They [Turkey] have a legitimate security concern, and we do not dismiss one bit of that, along that border with Syria," he stated, adding that Washington will continue to work closely with Turkey.
The PYD/PKK in Afrin has launched hundreds of rocket attacks on Turkey across the border, including dozens since late last month, killing and injuring many civilians.
The Pentagon had previously stated that some PYD/PKK-led SDF elements were shifting its militants, but did not specify where they were headed.
Mattis is expected to meet with his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli in Brussels this week.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on Jan. 20 to clear PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, northwestern Syria.
The operation is being carried out against the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and Daesh terrorist groups in the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and its self-defense rights under the UN charter.