Tom Coghlan / The Australian Times – 2016-01-24 20:20:59
US Sets Up Secret Syria Air Base to Help Elite Forces Fight ISIS
Tom Coghlan / The Times
(JANUARY 23, 2016) — Russia and the US have both established covert military bases in northern Syria, within 50km of each other, as East-West tensions rise dangerously along the Turkish border.
President Erdogan expressed alarm yesterday at reports that up to 200 Russian personnel have begun work to strengthen the runway at an air base in Qamishli, in an area controlled by the Assad regime.
It lies within a few kilometres of Turkey — a NATO member state which regards that area as being within its sphere of influence. The Turkish army has sent reinforcements to the border and soldiers have begun digging trenches.
Barely 50kms from Qamishli, US forces have established a presence on Syrian soil for the first time, according to local activists. They told of several dozen US military personnel setting up a base at a former agricultural airfield a few miles from the Iraqi and Turkish borders.
The area is controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been pushing back Isis with the help of American air power. US officials confirmed that a small number of Special Forces soldiers were being deployed, but declined to give details. “Because of the special nature of these forces, it’s very important that we do not discuss specifically where they’re located,” said Colonel Steve Warren, an army spokesman, in Baghdad.
“The airfield has been reconstructed and now has one airstrip for the American helicopters and a command centre,” said Abu Jad Haskawi, a Syrian activist who is based in the nearby town of Hasakah.
US intelligence sources confirmed to The Times that the Russians were also boosting their presence, and said they appeared to be scouting out the area for possible future reinforcements.
Officials said they seemed to have picked the location to build up defences against any possible action along the Syrian border by the Turkish military, which could include a move against the Kurds.
Turkey and Russia have backed opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, a brutal conflict that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives and which has drawn in regional and superpowers. Russia has repeatedly targeted Turkish-backed Syrian rebels with air strikes, and a Russian military jet that strayed into Turkish airspace on November 24 was shot down, raising the prospect of direct confrontation.
Turkey has launched military action against both Isis and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Turkish officials recently accused the Kurds — a key US ally in the fight against Isis — of seeking Russian backing.
The presence of the two superpowers in northeast Syria has raised tensions in an already crowded battlefield. “We won’t tolerate [Russian] formations along the area stretching from the Iraqi border up to the Mediterranean,” Mr Erdogan said yesterday (Friday), as reports of the Russian build-up emerged. “We maintain our sensitivities on this issue.”
Turkish forces began clearing minefields along the Syrian border this week in an area north of Aleppo where it has previously spoken of establishing a “safe zone”. Removing minefields is often an indicator that a ground intervention is imminent.
Turkish forces have also conducted cross-border artillery strikes against Isis positions in the area. It is not clear whether any Turkish military action would target Isis or the Kurds, or both.
Hurriyet, a daily newspaper based in Istanbul, reported yesterday that Russian intelligence officials had visited Qamishli. Nabi Avci, Turkey’s education minister, accused Kurdish forces there of collaborating with both the Syrian regime and Russian forces.
Mr Erdogan said that his nation regarded the threat from the various Kurdish factions in Syria and Turkey as being equal to the danger posed by ISIS. He said Turkey saw no difference between the various Kurdish groups and the jihadists and vowed to raise the issue of the Russian build-up on his country’s border with Joe Biden, the US vice-president, who is due to visit Turkey today.
Turkey is already fighting a military campaign against its Kurdish minority, which has long dreamt of an autonomous state spanning parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
A conflict between Turkey and Russia could derail the wider war against ISIS — which western governments yesterday claimed would find success in 2016. Speaking at the annual international conference in the Swiss resort of Davos, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said: “I think that, by the end of 2016, our goal of very seriously denting Daesh [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria will be achieved.”
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defence minister, said that about 22,000 jihadists had been killed by air strikes since mid-2014.
Sources inside Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS “caliphate”, said yesterday that the city faced a housing crisis as jihadist fighters and their families retreated from other areas and headed for the city.
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