BEIRUT – The US has reportedly been studying plans to establish a training base in northeastern Syria for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces coalition battling ISIS.
On Thursday, leading pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat said that US military experts were studying a project to set up a base in the far northeastern town of Al-Malikiyah, which is situated in an area controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) near both the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
An unnamed Western official told the London-based paper that "there is a project… to turn Al-Malikiyah's agricultural airport into a military base in which [US] experts will reside and from which they will travel to battle lines with ISIS."
"They will also contribute to training local fighters and helping them use [a] US arms [shipment] consisting of around 50 tons of ammunition and weaponry that was transferred to Syria several weeks ago by US helicopters," the source added.
Although the report did not specify the exact location of the proposed base, the open-content collaborative mapping project Wikimapia reveals one potential airstrip in the immediate vicinity of Al-Malikiyah.
The 730-meter long airstrip is situated 6 kilometers southwest of the town, near a Kurdish People's Protection Units base on the eastern edge of Hasakeh's Gera Vera reservoir.
Airstrip located near Al-Malikiyah. (image via Wikimapia)
Meanwhile, another potential facility—the Kortaban agricultural landing strip—is located approximately 19 kilometers southwest of Al-Malikiyah.
Kortaban airstrip. (image via Wikimapia)
Al-Hayat's report comes a month after a small Lebanon-based online news outlet also reported that US technicians were moving to set up a facility near Al-Malikiyah.
On December 13, ASIA news quoted a local source as saying that US military experts were working to establish an airport near the Hasakeh border town, following ongoing efforts to prepare another nearby landing strip in Rimelan.
The source told the outlet that the Rimelan field will be "used at first as a landing point for helicopters until work is finished on completing special runways so it can be used as an airport and military base for the US coalition in the area."
In turn, the Erbil-based ARA News reported Thursday that work was ongoing on the Rimelan airstrip, where US military experts are currently residing.
In early December, reports began to emerge that the Washington was preparing the Rimelan airbase as a conduit of supplies for the SDF coalition, which the US plans to bolster with a deployment of Special Forces.
Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported on December 4 that US technicians have "worked for more than one and a half months to expand and prepare the airport with a runway specialized for warplanes. Its length reaches 2500 meters and its width 250 meters."
The pro-Syrian regime newspaper said that the airbase was located southeast of the town of Rimelan, which is one of the YPG's main strongholds and "largest arms and ammunition depots."
According to the report, the airfield was used by Hasakeh's Directorate of Agriculture for crop dusting and has been out of service since 2010.
"This airport will help enable Washington to add an additional safe place to land its forces—commando units for example—and bring in military support to its allies, who are working to finalize control over southern Hasakeh countryside."
The report came a little over a week after the local Kurd Street outlet said that the US and Kurdish forces were working together to construct a 10 hectare military airbase south of the town of Rimelan in the village of Rimelan al-Basha.
"American experts are directly supervising the airbase with a Kurdish workforce," the report claimed, saying that US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) had been flown from the facility to test it.
The report also said that two helicopter had flown over the town of Rimelan on November 24 and landed eight US military specialists at the airport.
Interestingly, the Kurdish YPG issued a statement saying that "two unknown helicopters" had flown over Rimelan on the same day.
The following day, ARA News said that residents in the nearby village of Cil Axa had heard helicopters overhead, although they claimed they were Turkish.
Amid the news the US was working to prepare the Rimelan airstrip, an official spokesperson in the SDF denied Washington had any presence at the facility.
Talal Sello said on January 13 that no US aircraft were at Rimelan, adding that "if the [airport] was being developed" it would be for use as a conduit of relief aid.
Rimelan work nearing an end
Work on the Rimelan airbase has allegedly picked up pace since the late 2015 reports, with ARA News saying on Thursday that aircraft were flying into the facility every day.
A Syrian national living nearby the base told the outlet—which closely follows northern Syrian developments—that "two unidentified helicopters without markings fly on a daily basis at low elevation above the area."
"They go in the direction of Rimelan for a period of around half an hour [and then] they return and enter Turkish territory."
In turn, an anonymous source also living close to the airstrip told ARA that he had seen "US symbols" on the clothing of people operating in the Rimelan facility.
For its part, Kurd Street reported on Wednesday that preparations for the base were almost complete. An unnamed heavy machinery operator working at the airstrip told the outlet that "the air base is nearing complete readiness. It has been prepared with the best necessary materials."
The outlet added that half of the airbase's foundation has been completed and paved with asphalt. The second half is waiting for the muddy foundation to dry, according to the report.
Washington's support for SDF offensive
On October 30, US President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of a contingent of "fewer than 50" US Special Forces personnel to assist the newly formed SDF, which is spearheaded by the 30,000 strong Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
On Monday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Washington was prepared to expand its military support for forces fighting ISIS in northern Syria.
"I have every reason to believe the president will allow us to do more and authorize us to do more when we have more opportunities," he told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
The SDF—which is manned not only by Kurds but also local Arab and Assyrian militias in northeastern Syria—launched an offensive against ISIS the same day as Obama's announcement with the goal of clearing the extremist group from areas along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
In the past month of fighting, the coalition has seized well over 1,000 square kilometers of ISIS territory and marched into over 200 small villages in the eastern Hasakeh province.
On November 13, the SDF announced that it had swept into Al-Hawl, a town that lies on an ISIS supply route leading into Iraq's Sinjar.
"This is the biggest strategic victory, and it was achieved in complete coordination with the [US-led] international coalition," an SDF spokesperson told AFP.
Washington has backed the SDF's recent offensives with heavy airstrikes, while Pentagon officials have publicly touted the coalition's advances. On October 12, the US confirmed that it had airlifted 45 tons of military supplies to the SDF.
The SDF has now set its sights on seizing the Hasakeh town of Al-Shaddadi, which is one of ISIS's last strongholds in the northeastern Syrian province.