A Remote Syrian Airstrip Hints At A Growing American Military Role

Mar 24, 2016
Originally published on March 24, 2016 3:46 pm

Blink, and you'd miss the little airstrip surrounded by farmland and tiny, mud-built villages in northeastern Syria.

There are no checkpoints outside it. Nothing to stop people driving past — just two Syrian Kurdish guards out front, smoking cigarettes. The strip itself is just visible behind berms that earth movers are bolstering.

The Pentagon denies it has "taken over" this airstrip. But local people and officials say aircraft regularly fly in and out of it, and a U.S. spokesman concedes that a small number of U.S. military advisers inside Syria do need resupply from time to time.

"Oh yes, definitely helicopters," says Ali Berho Hadid, who manages a small farm a few hundred yards away. "And warplanes more than helicopters."

After five years of profound American reluctance to become involved in Syria's civil war, the U.S. military has gradually increased on-the-ground support to local, Kurdish-dominated forces in their fight against ISIS, and appears to be incrementally building a presence in eastern Syria.

After encouraging the Kurds to ally with Arab and other armed groups to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fall of last year, the United States has delivered ammunition here and sent about 50 military advisers. Local political leaders and commanders say they often have meetings with American military and civilian officials.

'ISIS Won't Even Think Of Coming'

In a town near the airstrip, colored posters hang from lampposts, showing young men and women who have died fighting ISIS. NPR is not specifying the location out of concern that civilians could be targeted by ISIS.

Mahmoud Ahmed, a local official, is the father of one son who has died in the fight. He comes over to introduce himself, shows a picture of his son and says he has two more still battling the extremists.

Ahmed believes — though he doesn't offer evidence — that it is the Americans flying in and out of the nearby airstrip. And he is pleased: "In the future, ISIS won't even think of coming to our area," he says.

Farther into this dusty farming town, Manaf Ibrahim is making hot shawarma sandwiches for the lunchtime rush. He was displaced from Deir Ezzour, a city in eastern Syria partly held by ISIS, and he, too, welcomes the growing American assistance in the fight against it.

Ibrahim, an Arab, has friends fighting against ISIS in the SDF, and says the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition have been invaluable. He thinks he saw a convoy with American civilian officials pass his shop a few weeks ago.

"It's nice," he says. "You feel some people are coming here to help you. It's not something against you. If they didn't like us, they wouldn't have come."

When asked if he can trust the Americans, Ibrahim wavers slightly. "In Iraq," he says, "they did something wrong, something political." But here in Syria, he says, he sees something different from the invasion in Iraq.

Rakan Fawaz, a taxi driver, comes over to say his piece about the airstrip. "I'm against it," he says. "I want the Russians to come here." He says that the Americans came to Iraq and "until now it is still making problems."

His doubts reflect wider suspicions about American assistance, even among the people directly seeking it.

The Kurdish Perspective

As peace talks limp on and world leaders debate possible solutions to the Syrian conflict, Kurdish leaders here say they wish the U.S. military support would translate into bolstering their plan to run a federal region in eastern Syria.

Amina Osse, a Kurdish political official, says she met with Brett McGurk, the president's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.

"We told him that if we are now fighting on the ground, we should be a part of the political side of Syria, too," she says.

She says that although McGurk responded that the Kurdish-led administration of parts of Syria was impressively organized, he gave no indication that the U.S. would support Kurdish political ambitions. The State Department has also made statements to this effect.

As Osse sees it, Russia could be a better source of political support as the Kurds consider their alliances. A rumored presence of Russian aircraft and soldiers near the Turkish border, in the city of Qamishli, has now evaporated since the Russian military has reduced its presence in Syria.

And officials and commanders say they have not received Russian military support here in the east of the country. Kurdish-led advances under Russian air support in western Syria were, they say, "a coincidence."

Osse also attended talks in Moscow, and says she understands that Russia wants the regime in Damascus to stay, "with some changes, like the constitution, and more rights for other groups like Kurds and Assyrians."

But both Americans and Russians, she says, are really only interested in keeping ISIS away for self-serving reasons. "Before ISIS comes to their door, they are supporting us," she says. "This is for their benefit more than the Kurds'."

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Now we have an exceedingly rare glimpse of life inside Syria. In the last few years, Western reporters have only occasionally been able to make it into the country. NPR's Alice Fordham did. She traveled to northeastern Syria. If you think of the country as a - as a triangle, it's the point in the upper right over near Iraq. The region is controlled by Syrian rebels, who also oppose ISIS. And our colleague Alice found something else there, a small, fixed-up airstrip. Locals believe it is used by American forces. The Pentagon denies it has taken over this airstrip but acknowledges U.S. forces operate in the region and need to be resupplied from time to time. Let's listen.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a rusty, dusty farming town set in idyllic green countryside. But the fight against ISIS casts a long shadow here. Pictures of young men and women who died battling the extremists hang on every lamppost - colored posters stretching away out of sight.

Some are afraid to talk about the war and politics encroaching on their simple lives. I asked some women selling eggs and milk if they've heard anything about an airstrip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Oh, no," one says quickly, "we didn't hear anything about that." When a friend says, "oh, I'm sure I've heard about a new airport," the other women hush her quickly. And we're not saying exactly where it is, in order not to increase the danger to locals. But some are willing to discuss it.

MAHMOUD AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: (Foreign language spoken). Nice to meet you.

Mahmoud Ahmed comes over and introduces himself as a local official.

AHMED: I'm the father Shaheed.

FORDHAM: His son died fighting ISIS. He shows a photo.

AHMED: My son.

FORDHAM: He says oh, yes, indeed. He knows about planes flying into an old airstrip outside town.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He drives past it often and sees refurbishment going on.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "we hear the Americans deny it's them. But all of us know it is." He doesn't offer any evidence but says he's pleased because he thinks it means in future, ISIS won't even think about coming to this area.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Ahmed has two more sons fighting in a faction the U.S. is backing against ISIS and likes the gradually growing American presence. Here's what the U.S. government has officially acknowledged. Now there are military advisers here in northeastern Syria, which is largely Kurdish. There are airstrikes of course by the U.S.-led coalition. The U.S. has delivered ammunition. American officials have been photographed visiting local political leaders and commanders. In this sleepy corner of the world where whole villages are build of mud, people feel the presence of the United States military growing. And there are definitely people upset by that. Next to a stall selling hot shawarma sandwiches, Rakan Fawaz, a taxi driver, comes over to say his piece about the U.S. using the airstrip.

RAKAN FAWAZ: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So he says that, "I'm against that. I want the Russians to come here."

FORDHAM: He doesn't trust America.

FAWAZ: (Through interpreter) So because the Americans entered into Iraq - till now, it's making problems.

FORDHAM: We set off to see this airstrip for ourselves.

So there's a big mud wall outside. You can see two guards standing, smoking cigarettes and a couple of earthmovers. That's about it. Oh, and from here we can actually just about see the airstrip.

It's so basic - a concrete strip and some farmland. There's no buildings, no Americans I can see. I'm almost skeptical there are really planes flying in and out of here. But then we call in at the farmhouse of a rich tribal sheikh a few hundred yards down the road. The sheikh's not there, but the manager, Ali Hadid, shows us his horses. I ask Hadid if he hears things at the base.

ALI HADID: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Oh, yes," he says, "definitely helicopters - and warplanes more than helicopters." He's sure they're from the U.S.-led coalition. I ask if it's strange to have all this going on in the middle of nowhere.

HADID: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "no, we're sure they're friends. So if there's helicopters coming, we're relaxed about it." Alice Fordham, NPR News, northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.