The U.S. Military Expands Its Network of Syrian Airfields
Bases make it easier to bring in supplies for the SDF
A recent article in the Russian state-owned Sputnik Turkey outlet speculated that the airfield the United States built from scratch in the Syrian-Kurdish Kobani region could become a substitute for Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
The assertion is likely correct—but only to an extent. The United States has never been able to completely rely on Incirlik, where the U.S. Air Force bases a modest fleet warplanes and drones along with thousands of service members. Incirlik is also the home for around 50 of America’s B-61 nuclear bombs.
Turkey has repeatedly denied America use of the base for combat operations when they conflicted with Turkey’s interests.
Today is no different. Ankara vehemently disapproves of U.S. support for Syrian-Kurdish militants fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey fears the militants will seek to aid Kurdish insurgents in Turkey itself, and frequently rose the prospect of prohibiting American warplanes from using the base in recent months.
Indeed, Turkey prohibited the United States from launching combat missions from Incirlik between September 2014 and July 2015. U.S. jets operating from Incirlik are just a short flight from Raqqa and other Islamic State-held towns and villages in Syria, much closer than any of the bases or aircraft carriers the coalition has in the region.
— leshker (@leshker_) April 5, 2017
The Kobani airfield, on the other hand, has become a major logistical hub for U.S. troops on the ground in northeast Syria and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Indicative of the airfield’s growing importance, it has facilitated more than 100 landings of C-130 Hercules transports and another 50 landings of C-17 Globemaster IIIs, according to Voice of America. The cargo planes can take off and land from primitive runways.
In strictly military terms, using the Kobani airfield for supplies makes a lot sense. Flying cargo into Kobani and then moving it over land is a more reliable and practical way to resupply the SDF than through airdrops.
But political calculations are certainly part of the reason for relying on Kobani instead of Incirlik. Turkey would hardly tolerate dozens of logistical flights of equipment and weapons for the SDF/YPG—while it has allowed the coalition to use Incirlik to strike at the Islamic State.
U.S. forces also airlifted the SDF into battle against the Islamic State in Tabqa, west of Raqqa, in late March 2017. These forces then successfully captured a strategically important Syrian air base there of the same name, which could serve as a firebase to support the Raqqa operation in the coming weeks.
Combined with a continued flow of air strikes from Incirlik, and use of smaller airstrips prepared in Rmelian and Qamishli in the same region, these bases can surely bolster the SDF/YPG as they march into Raqqa.
Meanwhile, some articles on the subject have stretched the borders of plausibility. Debkafile, an Israeli war tabloid, claimed that this “rising complex or air bases will enable America to deploy twice as many warplanes and helicopters in Syria as the Russians maintain.” [Emphasis ours.]
The United States is unlikely gearing up for such an enormous build-up. Keeping U.S. planes based at and flying out of Incirlik requires some 5,000 American airmen maintaining the base’s facilities and supply chains. Helicopters are one thing, but basing warplanes in Syria, while not impossible, would require a sizable force of troops to protect them, and costly work bringing the runways and assorted infrastructure up to standard.
Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute told Voice of America that Tabqa, a full-fledged—albeit now damaged—air base formerly used by the Syrian regime, “does not measure up to NATO military standards. I don’t think it can be an alternative to Incirlik.”
So, we probably won’t see F-15s and F-16s from Incirlik relocating to northeast Syria and operating as the Russians do, with regime permission, from their base in Syria’s western Latakia province. Were the U.S. to base combat aircraft in Syria, rugged AH-64 Apache helicopters and A-10 Warthog ground attackers are more realistic choices.
The Syrian regime also opposes unauthorized troop deployments on its soil. It once dropped barrel bombs on Turkish-backed militiamen during Turkey’s Euphrates Shield campaign and even threatened to shoot Turkish jet fighters out of the sky.
Neither Ankara nor Washington coordinated their respective troop deployments or campaigns in Syria with Damascus, but had deconfliction mechanisms in place with the Russian military. And since U.S. President Donald Trump’s missile strike on the regime’s Shayrat Air Base, tensions between the United States and Syria, along with Russia, have, unsurprisingly, increased.
In Iraq, the U.S. military works with the central government in Baghdad and provides it with air, logistical and training support. But even there the United States hasn’t sought to base or operate its warplanes from Iraq. The U.S. military has instead used the dilapidated Qayyarah West Airfield as a logistical hub and firebase to support the Mosul offensive and to base Apache gunships.
It’s still unclear if the United States will risk deploying gunships to Kobani or Tabqa. After all, U.S. helicopters haven’t seen extensive use in the Mosul operation, and Mosul is a far larger and more significant city than Islamic State-held Raqqa. Expect the growing U.S. presence in Syria—now including Marines and artillery—to continue resembling the American strategy in Iraq, albeit on a smaller scale.