Did U.S. Helicopters Fly Syrian Rebels Into Battle With Islamic State?
An unusual mission near the Iraq-Syria border
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
During America’s war in Southeast Asia, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency helicopters routinely flew guerrillas and other irregular troops around South Vietnam and Laos. Today U.S. choppers could be hauling around rebel troops as part of a secretive campaign against Islamic State in Syria.
Sometime between June 27 and June 28, 2016, members of the United States-backed New Syrian Army stormed the abandoned Hamdan Air Base north of the town of Al Boukamal. Since Al Qaeda-linked militants in the city defected to Islamic State two years ago, the terror group has controlled this important junction near the Iraq-Syria border.
On June 29, a spokesman for the New Syrian Army said Pentagon helicopters had shuttled at least some of the rebel force onto the airstrip and to other sites, according to a report by the Associated Press. A representative of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Great Britain-based humanitarian organization that regularly communicates with sources inside Syria, confirmed these details.
If the account turns out to be true, the mission could reflect a dramatic change in how Washington is helping friendly rebel groups inside Syria.
“Cutting these supply lines will impact the flow of foreign fighters and supplies between the upper and lower Euphrates Valley,” U.S. Army colonel Christopher Garver, the top spokesman for the Pentagon’s task force fighting Islamic State, told reporters on June 29. “I don’t want to get into too many specifics right now, but a good-sized force of fighters from the At Tanf garrison conducted an attack north.”
When journalists asked for additional details, Garver said the rebels had conferred with their American counterparts before launching their assault. To help out with the attack, U.S. troops conducted air strikes and provided unspecified “advice and assistance.”
But Garver didn’t explain how the approximately 200 to 300 Syrian rebels had gotten from At Tanf to Al Boukamal. Al Boukamal lies nearly 150 miles to the northeast of At Tanf, near Syria’s tri-border region with Iraq and Jordan.
However, in an interview with The Daily Beast on July 1, 2016, Col. Khazaal Al Sarhan, the head of the New Syrian Army, dismissed any claim that American choppers or other aircraft had deposited his fighters in or around the city during the operation. In addition, Al Sarhan said Iraqi Sunni tribesmen from Al Qa’im, a town just across the border, had taken part in the mission.
By that point, Islamic State had counter-attacked and stalled the Syrian rebels’ assault. The terrorists claimed to have killed a number of New Syrian Army fighters, captured others and seized their gear. The Daily Beast described the mission as a “Bay-of-Pigs-style fiasco.”
Still, Al Sarhan didn’t offer any additional details about how the rebel force had made their way to Al Boukamal. On June 16, Russian fighter-bombers had bombed the At Tanf base, destroying some of the rebel vehicles and wounding or killing a number of fighters.
A cursory glance at publicly-available satellite imagery shows that there’s only largely-uninhabited desert and dry river beds between the two populated areas. No major highway connects the cities. During the day, the Islamic State defenders would have been able to see a large truck convoy coming from miles away.
With so little terrain to hide an advance on the ground, an aerial assault would have been a good alternative. The choppers could have approached quickly and from multiple directions, throwing off the defenders.
Then, advance parties could have taken over potential landing sites such as the old Hamdan airstrip and called in additional reinforcements and equipment. With the enemy already in disarray, a larger force traveling on the ground in trucks could then have arrived to take charge of the battle.
It would have been relatively easy to train Syrian rebels how to load onto and get off the choppers during an attack. The Pentagon had already highlighted how American and allied troops were teaching Iraqi and Kurdish troops these skills.
For more than a year, former U.S. Navy intelligence operator and counter-terrorism expert Malcolm Nance has advocated a similar strategy of aerial raids by American commandos and allied forces. Nance’s plan worries less about liberating cities such as Al Boukamal than it does about harassing Islamic State to the point that the group loses control of the battlefield — and maybe even its collective mind.
“The purpose of these missions is to raid and maraud, draw out the enemy and force them to chase dozens of ghosts simultaneously all over the ‘caliphate,’” he wrote in his 2016 book Defeating ISIS. “We can then let ISIS enjoy the fruits of the one asymmetric advantage we [the United States] hold worldwide — precision bombing.”
The Pentagon certainly had the forces and infrastructure in the region to transport the Syrian rebels into the Islamic State-held town. In November 2014, the U.S. Air Force accidentally posted online a video showing U.S. Army commandos flying specialized helicopters around Iraq.
At least a year earlier, the Pentagon’s top special operations headquarters for the Middle East deployed aircraft — including unique V-22 Osprey tiltrotors — to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Regular Army and Marine units have even more helicopters and Ospreys at bases in Kuwait.
In February, unnamed American officials told Voice of America that troops were improving at least one airstrip in northern Syria in order to support the offensive against Islamic State. And as of 2013, the Pentagon had scouted out more than 300 potential landing zones across the Middle East, according to documents War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 27, 2015, using a common acronym for Islamic State. Less than a week before, an elite Army Delta Force soldier had died during a raid with Kurdish commandos near Hawijah, Iraq.
But if American choppers did carry rebel fighters into Al Boukamal, it could represent a significant change in U.S. policy. Previously, Washington limited support for Syrian groups to much-maligned training programs in neighboring countries, along with consignments of weapons and other supplies.
Although apparently unhappy with the overall level of aid from his Western benefactors, Al Sarhan did not indicate that such a shift had occurred. “The Pentagon has the will and ability to collect more manpower but it is taking them a very long time to bring this into effect,” he complained to The Daily Beast.
If U.S. troops did fly the Syrian rebels to their target, the outcome might make the Americans think twice about doing it again any time soon. And if not, maybe the Pentagon should look into doing so in the future.