This is about as close as the U.S. military gets to saying ‘yeah, it exists’
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The U.S. military has all-but confirmed it’s in control of an airstrip in northern Syria. For months, reports in Arabic have described the base near Rmaylan, Syria, with Americans helping expand the runway as low-flying, unmarked helicopters make daily trips to and from Turkey.
On May 6, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, didn’t exactly deny the existence of the airstrip when asked about it. “The soon to be 300 American forces working in Syria need to be resupplied,” Warren wrote. “Aerial resupply only makes good sense.”
The statement came during a Reddit AMA after a commenter asked about the airstrip, one of two which have attracted attention on military forums and in media reports. Perhaps one of the most detailed reports came in January from the newspapers Al-Hayat and Kurd Street. For an English language summary of the reports see NOW News.
One airstrip is reportedly located in far northeastern Syria near Al Malikiyah, with the other near Rmaylan to the southwest, both inside territory controlled by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units. The Syrian government has also denounced the presence of 150 U.S. troops in Rmaylan, which the Pentagon has not acknowledged. According to the reports, the construction at Rmaylan is to first accommodate helicopters and then later “as an airport and military base for the U.S. coalition in the area.”
U.S. officials speaking anonymously confirmed American involvement at the Rmaylan airfield — known as Abu Hajar airport — to Voice of America in February. “We need runways over there. Our guys said, ‘Hey, it might not be a bad idea to extend this runway,’” the official told VoA. But a Central Command spokesperson later denied the U.S. military had taken over the airfield or was involved in construction.
There is little information on the precise locations of these airfields — it’s at best an educated guess with the help of mapping software. There is an airfield near Malikiyah about seven kilometers to the east. Another airstrip exists eight kilometers southeast of Rmaylan and has reportedly expanded to 2,500 meters in length — but recent satellite images suggest it is considerably shorter at around 1,350 meters.
Note that before whoever starting expanding it, the airfield was 700 meters.
Not that you could physically go there and take a look. A CNN crew visited in February and saw a tractor flattening the runway before members of the YPG’s intelligence service appeared and escorted them away. Also note that both airstrips are deep inside Kurdish territory and more than 100 miles from the front line with the Islamic State and roughly 175 miles from Raqqa.
“We believe [the Islamic State’s] military centers of gravity are in Mosul and Raqqah,” Warren wrote. “When these cities fall, it will be the beginning of the end for ISIL. That said, their ideological center of gravity is the existence of their so called ‘caliphate’ and their conviction that their ‘mission’ is to bring about the end of days.”
“Their ideological center of gravity is difficult to fight. Their military center of gravity, while challenging, is a nut that we can crack. It’s not a question of ‘if’ these cities will fall. It’s only a question of ‘when’ and ‘who.’”
The United States has around 300 special operations troops in Syria assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition of armed groups including the Kurdish YPG and Sunni Arab armed groups. Now with airstrips of sufficient length, the Air Force has enough room to land transport planes such as C-130s carrying troops and ammunition. If aircraft need to stay for awhile, the Air Force has the ability to set up remote fueling stations.
We can also bet the Pentagon had selected the airfields long in advance. In 2013, Air Force Assault Zone Reconnaissance Teams compiled a list of 300 landing zones “throughout the Middle East,” according to an official Air Force history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
And American commandos and airmen regularly train for these kinds of gritty, spartan airfield missions. It doesn’t take much to set up an impromptu base.
- Islamic State Is Gassing Kurdistan
- Islamic State Wants You to Fear Its Snipers
- There Are So Many Warplanes Over Iraq That Baghdad’s Air Traffic Controllers Can’t Keep Up