Reports have emerged this week that the US has begun construction of an airbase in Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. While there have been some earlier rumours of this claimed US airbase, a number of new reports have come out the week, adding weight to these claims. So what do we know so far?
- The airbase is reportedly located several kilometres south of the small town of Rimelan, part of a region in the far northeast corner of Syria, close to Iraqi Kurdistan which has been controlled by the YPG for more than 2 years.
- The airstrip in question is a former agricultural runway which prior to construction works was a paved landing strip of around 700m in length.
- According to a report in Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, the runway is planned to be expanded to 2500m in length and 250m in width.
- Other reports suggest the under construction airbase will cover a ‘10 hectare’ area.
- YPG news outlets have reported “unknown helicopters” flying close to the airbase.
- Al Jazeera has reportedly spoken to an SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) media activist who claims that the US cut a deal with the YPG to use the base to support SDF operations against ISIS.
- US CENTCOM has so far refused to confirm or deny reports of construction at this airfield.
US tightens cooperation with SDF
Should these reports turn out to be true, or even partially true, it would amount to a significant escalation in the level of US ground involvement in Syria. While President Obama has authorised no more than 50 US Special Forces to deploy to north-eastern Syria to assist the SDF, the operation of an air base would require a considerable increase in the number of direct military personnel, as well as those in associated support positions.
More importantly, should the US indeed use the airbase to increase the level of air support which they provide to SDF forces, it would serve as a further indication that the US has chosen this group as their preferred ally in Syria, following the failure of other moderate forces in the country. Evidence of the role which the purported Rimelan Airbase will play will likely become more evident as the SDF gears up for their next offensive against ISIS, possibly directed towards the militant group’s stronghold of Al-Shaddadi.
Furthermore, through locating an air base within Syria without regime permission, the US is both demonstrating its view that Assad is no longer the legitimate ruler of Syria, and guaranteeing a level of security to its preferred allies. The long term implications of this means that a de facto split of the country will become more probable, with the US and Russia now directly supporting different sides in the fight against ISIS.