ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — After two days of high-level security meetings between US and Turkish officials, US Defense Secretary James Mattis pointed out that Washington is supporting NATO-ally Turkey, in part, because of the threats it faces internally.
"Let me just hit on Turkey right up front. Turkey is a NATO ally. It is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its own border," Mattis told reporters late Sunday night.
Mattis stated the two countries' militaries are meeting daily right now, describing the "legitimate security concerns" of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey as a "very complex campaign" and "tough."
Specifically, he explained: "We are assisting Turkey, a number of the nations are assisting Turkey, in terms of missile defense and counter-terrorism."
Mattis highlighted that already after a year into the presidency of Donald Trump; NATO members have reversed what was a "downward trend" on defense spending.
[Y]ou see it with the number of nations that have already achieve 2.0 [percent of GDP], or will here this year, and you see it in the number that have national plans to get 2.0," he said.
Mattis, who heads the Department of Defense, made his remarks after Trump's national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, met on Saturday and Sunday in Istanbul with Turkey's Ibrahim Kalyn, deputy secretary-general and Turkish presidential spokesperson.
"Long-term strategic partnership relations between Turkey and the U.S. were reaffirmed and the two countries’ priorities and sensitivities were discussed," stated Kalin, calling the two countries "long-standing allies."
The Turkish statement did not single out any terror groups.
"[M]atters, which negatively affect bilateral relations, were discussed in detail, and ways of developing joint fight against terrorism in all its forms were investigated," added Kalin.
The White House statement was nearly identical to Kalin's.
However, they "explored ways to expand the joint fight against all forms of terrorism."
As ISIS has been militarily defeated in Iraq and northern Syria, its foreign militants have often tried to flee through Turkey.
Additionally, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has re-ignited an armed insurgency against the Turkish state, seeking greater political, cultural, and minority rights for Kurds and others. Washington and Ankara list the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has supported Kurdish fighters in their Syrian campaign. Most belong to the People's Protection Units (YPG) and are the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of the PKK. The YPG denies any organic links to the Turkish political party.
However with no credible reports of an ISIS presence, the United States did not prevent Turkey's Operation Olive Branch assault on the Kurdish canton of Afrin in Syria; but at the same time, has said it understands that people in Afrin want to protect their homes.
The UK-based conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported four civilians killed in Afrin canton by Turkish strikes on Sunday, bringing the total to 74 since Turkey launched the operation on January 20. Kurdish officials have claimed the death toll is at least as high as 160.
Turkey denies targeting civilians, but YPG Commander Sipan Hamo claims that 90 percent of the Turkish strikes target civilian populations.