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

January 23, 2016

By Chris Biggers

Translations: Русский

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 southeast of Rmeilan, is also less than 10 miles 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 the 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 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 now, 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 airfield 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”.
Chris Biggers

Chris Biggers is a public and private sector consultant based in Washington, D.C.

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10 Comments

  1. John Zenwirt

    As USA & Western “Special Operators” move into the Syrian scene, logistical & operational support for them became crucial; that and the continued co-alition bombing campaign re. ISIS.

    Reply
  2. Docduracoat

    It is about time that the U.S. has started giving some real support to the Kurds.
    They seem to be the only good guys in this whole mess.
    Sunni, yet against terrorism, democratic, for woman’s equality, they seem to share our western values.
    They have stood up against Isis with Soviet era weaponry and U.S. air support.
    The believe in their cause and their leaders and are willing to fight.
    The Iraqi National Army was trained and supported with $25 billion ( with a B!)
    They just threw it away and ran when the time came to face Isis.
    What if we had given one tenth of that to the Kurds?
    They would have put it to good use.
    I also like that arming the Kurds irritates our so called ” allies” the Turks.
    That makes it a twofer!.

    Reply
    • John

      I would be cautious praising the Kurds too much. I know a guy who spent a couple months on the Kurdish line interviewing PKK/YPG dudes. There are major divisions between those guys as well that are exacerbated by fighting effectiveness and foreign aid. He states an intra PKK-YPG conflict is not….unforseeable. This might be anecdotal but it does highlight the point that these guys are just as much on the take as FSA rebels. To be clear, I could see them being at best the least-unreliable partners in Iraq and Syria

      Reply
  3. Michael Cruickshank

    I was trying to look into how long this runway would need to be to handle heavy US craft. From what I could find 700-800m is required for an F-16, while there didn’t seem to be any info on what was necessary for a B1 Lancer or indeed drones like MQ-9 etc.

    Do you know anywhere one can find such info?

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Really don’t think a B-1 would be landing in Syria. This is not a major base with sufficient security or support. They are looking for a supply dump, so probably the big target would be something like a C-130, a get in, unload and get out proposition. Look at what the Russkies think they need at their airbase.

      Reply
  4. John Zenwirt

    Don’t forget the US aircraft carriers…many of the strikes happen from them, in Eastern Med.

    Reply
  5. John Zenwirt

    Would it not be prudent to send a full USA carrier-group into the Baltic Sea, through the Skagerak….to send a “Hello” to Putin’s weak country/navy….

    Reply

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