Is the U.S. Expanding an Airfield in Syria?

Landsat Rmeilen

Low resolution Landsat imagery shows new activity at an airfield rumored to support a U.S. military presence in Syria’s Al-Hasakah province. The imagery acquired via the U.S. Geological Survey suggests the U.S. could be establishing further supply lines to Kurdish and friendly forces in the region in the effort to fight the Islamic State.

Space snapshots from 12 December show an expanded runway at the airfield since 05 December. Measurements taken on low resolution imagery suggests the total length is nearly 1,350 meters, almost double the original 700 meters.

Rumors reported in the Lebanese press in December suggested the agricultural airfield would reach at least 2,500 meters (al-akhbar) (Now). However, that seems unlikely as probable paving activity appeared to be underway in imagery from 28 December. (This is suggested by the discoloration of the runway).

The airfield, located less than five miles (8 km) southeast of Rmeilan, is also less than 10 miles (16 km) northwest of the Yarubiya-Rabia (Tel Kocher) border crossing. It’s located in an area that’s been under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)  since at least September 2013 when they took the territory from Islamic State.

Rmeilan, an oil rich area, sits in defense of the Sweidiyeh Oil Field which is located northeast of the town. It’s part of territory held by almost 30,000 YPG fighters. Throughout 2015, YPG and associated forces took back major territory in eastern Al-Hasakah clashing with Islamic State. U.S. airstrikes helped support the fighters carrying out the offensive against the terrorist group.

By October, the U.S. began sending small arms and ammunition via airdrops to friendly groups in the region as a part of a new effort to increase the pressure on Islamic State and maintain hard-won gains.

It appears this airfield may be apart of those efforts. Unconfirmed reports from the group “Local Coordination Committees of Syria” suggest two helicopters carrying light ammunition and explosives landed on 17 January 2016 at the military airfield.

With a longer runway and improved surfaces, we suspect the airfield could become something more than just a supply point for regional forces. We’ll continue to look to future imagery for insight.

More Information

  • Looking in Google Maps/Earth for the airfield? You can follow the geocoords on the imagery via this link — it shows imagery from 2013, when the length of the airfild was approximately 700m.
  • In a report by Al Jazeera on 22JAN16, a U.S. Central Command spokesman “denied that US forces have taken control of any airfield in Syria”.
  • On 23JAN16, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that nearly 100 US special forces and experts, alongside forces from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are setting up an “airbase” at the airfield in Rmeilan, “from where aircraft used to take off to spray pesticides on crops before Syria’s war started five years ago”. US Central Command spokesman Colonel Pat Ryder said that “[t]here has been no change to the size of mission of the US presence in Syria”, but that “US forces in Syria are consistently looking at ways to increase efficiency for logistics and personnel recovery support”.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Chris Biggers, English, Intelligence, International, Syria.

6 Responses to Is the U.S. Expanding an Airfield in Syria?

  1. VNCcc says:

    Dear author, editor and readers,

    We’ve just posted three larger screen shots off of GE, zooming in on the the air strip, on our Page at FB: https://www.facebook.com/VNC.communication.counsel/posts/10153251574566046
    Those who do not have an FB account can request said pictures via our email. vnccc(at)mac(dot)com.

    Yours kindly,
    EIC VNCcc

    • Hello Vincent,
      thanks for the colored imagery from Google Earth/Map. As you see at the bottom of the article, we already added the link to Google Earth/Map, but we wouldn’t use these imagery because they are from 2013. The importance is not that the 700 m strip was already there, it is that they are working to enlarge and to pave it with concrete. Because of that, we were searching something more recent. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are only low-resolution imagery publicly available.

  2. US Confirms Involvement In Syria Airfield Expansion, Voice of America, 03.02.2016:

    At the urging of an American contingent, Syrian Kurds are expanding an airbase on farmland in northeast Syria that could be used for military purposes, according to Kurdish and U.S. officials.

    Known as Abu Hajar airport, the airbase is located in the Rmelan area of northern Syria, and is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Defense Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Neither has an air force.

    A team of Americans pitched the idea to Syrian Democratic Forces to extend the runway, a defense official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

    The official Wednesday said the airfield is being extended from 700 meters to 1,300 meters.

    The extension would be long enough to allow C-130 transport planes to land on the strip and potentially supply those fighting Islamic State forces in the area.

    “We need runways over there. Our guys said, ‘Hey, it might not be a bad idea to extend this runway,’” the official said.

    The official added that while Americans did suggest the runway extension, there are no Americans physically helping with the airfield improvement.

    Airbase use
    Talal Silo, a spokesman for the Syria Democratic Forces, told VOA the airbase previously was used to carry agricultural products in the region and is now being expanded for humanitarian and, possibly, military use.

    “This does not mean it is a military base,” he said. “We will use it to receive humanitarian and reconstruction aid.”

    Still, Silo told VOA that using the airbase for military purposes by the U.S. is a possibility because “we are a strategic partner to the U.S.”

    “This is a normal thing to happen as a part of our strategic partnership with the U.S,” Silo said. “In the past, we received three airdrops of ammunition from the Americans. In the future, we may come to an agreement with the U.S. to use the airbase for aircrafts. We will not oppose that.”

    Two U.S officials denied any U.S. military involvement in the planning or extending of the airfield, but refused to confirm or deny reports of CIA involvement.

    Not “US defense effort”
    Another U.S. official cautioned that the airfield expansion is “not a U.S. defense effort.”

    “The U.S. military has not taken control of any airfield in Syria and press reports to the contrary are incorrect,” Colonel Pat Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which overseas military operations in Iraq and Syria, told VOA in a statement. “That being said, U.S. forces in Syria are consistently looking for ways to increase efficiency for logistics and personnel recovery support.”

    Still, the Kurdish military spokesman Silo said American military experts will soon come to train Kurdish forces.

    “These experts will need a lot of equipment that can be sent via planes,” he said.

    Imagery and eyewitness accounts in Syria and Iraq have appeared to support increased involvement by the United States.

    Showed construction
    According to the global intelligence company Stratfor, low-resolution satellite imagery, taken December 28 and released last month, showed construction to extend the runway.

    A VOA reporter who visited the airbase over the weekend found that it is heavily protected by walls and forces belonging to Kurdish Protection Units and Syrian Democratic Forces.

    No journalists are allowed to enter the area.

    The airfield is 120 kilometers from the Qamishli airport – a civilian airport controlled by the Syrian government that is reported being used by Russian military aircraft flying missions in support of the regime.

    No Russian presence
    There was no evidence of a Russian military presence at Qamishli airport when VOA visited, but Fesla Yusif, deputy leader of the National Council of Syrian Kurds, confirmed the presence of Russian forces there.

    Yusif said he is troubled by what appears to be an increasing U.S. and Russian footprint in northern Syria, which largely has been free of fighting or an IS presence during Syria’s civil war.

    “Syria is in a very bad and uncertain situation,” Yusif said. “International powers have increased their presence in the country without a clear strategy.”

  3. 12728956_582532701904046_8356197088567704110_n

    The Pentagon told the Russian military where U.S. Special Forces are located in Syria with the hopes that Russian aircraft will steer clear of that area and not risk bombing American service members, top military officials said Thursday.

    The disclosure reveals an expanded level of military–to-military communication and cooperation between the two countries beyond the basic “memorandum of understanding,” or MOU, that was signed in October and focused on safety protocols for air crews operating in Syrian air space.

    “We provided a geographical area that we asked them to stay out of because of the risk to U.S. forces,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Thursday. “This was a step we took to try to maintain their safety in a dangerous situation and this was a request that we made to the Russians outside the scope of the” memorandum of understanding, Cook said. “Up to this point, [the Russians] have honored this request.” (Andrew Tilghman, “U.S. quietly tells Russia where American troops are located inside Syria“, Military Times, 18.02.2016).

    One location is thought to be the airfield that American Special Forces are said to be using 4.8 km SE of Rmeilan and approx. 7.5 km from the Iraqi border. The airfield is currently under expansion in Rojava Kurdish YPG-controlled Syrian territory. Prior to this it was a private dirt-strip for agricultural use and had no buildings or facilities besides the airstrip itself. The current work lengthens/widens the landing strip, presumably to accommodate larger aircraft. As of Dec. 26th, 2015 no evidence of structures or asphalt/concrete surfacing, although work reportedly continues.

    As of Feb 2nd, only reports of occasional helicopters landing at site — no fixed-wing aircraft. No verification of any U.S. troop presence at the airstrip except for site visits via helicopters.

    The information was first reported after a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesperson told Al Jazeerathat that U.S. troops have taken control of the airbase in order to assist the SDF in their fight against ISIS.

    The SDF is made up of a number of participants — mostly Kurdish, but also members of the Free Syrian Army, and other groups fighting Assad and ISIS. The SDF has been supported by the United States in the past.

    YPG and U.S. DoD deny any attempt to establish a U.S. airbase, and denies that the U.S. “controls” the airfield. The YPG has no aircraft or use for its own airfield. Work on the airstrip is assumed to be at the direction of U.S. CENTCOM, to used by the U.S. for logistics in supporting the SDF against ISIS. U.S. Special Forces soldiers are currently operating in Syria in support of the SDF and would purportedly use the airfield for Syrian operations. U.S. DoD refuses to comment on any potential SF use.

    No publicly known formal permission by Syria to the U.S. to expand or use the airstrip.
    Coordinates: 36°53’50″N; 41°59’50″E

    This article was provided by Vincent van Neerven. Thank you, Vincent! It appeared on the Facebook-page “Eye on Iran“.

  4. On May 6, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, didn’t exactly deny the existence of the airstrip in Northern Syria when asked about it. “The soon to be 300 American forces working in Syria need to be resupplied,” Warren wrote (see below). “Aerial resupply only makes good sense.”

    Screenshot at Mai 07 19-16-32

    “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.'”

    Source: Robert Beckhusen, “Pentagon Hints at Secretive Syria Airfield“, War is Boring, 07.05.2016.

  5. First images emerge of U.S. Special Operations forces in the fight to retake Raqqa on May 25, 2016. According to the photographer there were more than a dozen U.S. troops accompanying the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

    In one image, someone who appears to be an American is wearing a Kurdish People’s Protection Unit patch on his left arm (see image below). Known as the YPG, the Kurdish units form a large majority of the SDF and have been critical to almost all of the victories against the Islamic State in northern Syria.

    imrs

    The YPG has long been branded by the Turkish authorities as the Syrian arm of Turkey’s Kurdistan’s Workers Party, known as the PKK. The PKK is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States, but U.S. officials dispute the Turkish claim that the PKK and the YPG are one and the same. But the appearance of a YPG patch on a U.S. soldier’s arm will likely inflame tensions with Ankara as well as some Arab groups aligned against the Kurds, including components of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.

    When embedded with a partner country or ally, U.S. Special Operations forces often wear the patch or sometimes even the uniform of those they are supporting. Showing solidarity with allies is an essential component of one of Special Operation’s key missions, known as Foreign Internal Defense, or FID.

    Source: Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Liz Sly, “First Images Emerge of U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Fight to Retake Raqqa“, Washington Post, 26.05.2016.

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