US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told CNBC on January 22 he wants to speed up the battle to defeat the Islamic State.
In an interview with «Squawk Box» at the World Economic Forum, Carter said the United States' active allies in the fight are doing a lot, but can do more.
Specifically, he said he wants to defeat ISIS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and its home base in Raqqa, Syria.
In two weeks, Carter will meet with a broad group of defense ministers where he said he will press those who are in the fight «on paper» but are not doing enough. The Secretary said the United States would continue to keep boots on the ground. «We're looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground – I want to be clear about that – but it's a strategic question, whether you are enabling local forces to take and hold, rather than trying to substitute for them», as he put it.
Yes, indeed, the plans for ground operation have come into the open. And there is something being done by the US in pure practical terms. The United States has begun construction of an airbase in Kurdish controlled northeast Syria.
Air Force specialists are working to reconstruct and equip a disused facility, reportedly located several kilometers south of the small town of Rimelan in the northeast Syrian province of Hasakah, close to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The area is under control of Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG). Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reports, the runway is planned to be expanded to 2500m in length and 250m in width.
The Syrian Observer reported on January 20: “In a step which is the first of its kind, American helicopters have begun to use the Rimelan airport in the countryside of the Syrian province of Hasakah. Syrian activists recorded the landing of two helicopters on Tuesday, January 19, at the airport, which lies in the province’s northeast, near the border with Iraq and is under the control of the Kurdish ‘self-administration’.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said equipment had been used to widen the airport runway in recent weeks, while a number of helicopters had taken off and landed.
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 the Islamic State. «Under a deal with the YPG, the US was given control of the airport. The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an airbase for US warplanes», Taj Kordsh, a media activist from the SDF told Al Jazeera on January 19.
On January 20, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren confirmed that there is an operation “ongoing” in that area at a press briefing.
Asked about local reporting in Syria saying that two US hovercrafts have provided ammunition and weapons to Kurdish fighters in the region of Hasakah, he said, “That operation is ongoing. But because of the special nature of these forces, it's very important that we not discuss specifically where they're located. And as discussions of where these forces are located bubble up through the press, it puts those forces at increased risk. So I would urge everyone to take an appetite suppressant and not feel like they have to print the rumors that they've heard about the locations of American Special Forces. That puts lives at risk.”
In his comments about mounting offensive operations in the Hasakah area, Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for US Central Command, said, «In the coming weeks, you're going to see significant fighting in that area as ISIL realizes that Shadadi is a key node in their lines of communications».
The airport will enable Washington to have a safe place to land its forces, commando units for instance, and bring in military support to its allies who are working to finalize control over Southern Hasakah countryside. A US military facility on Syrian soil significantly escalates the level of US ground involvement in the conflict. Last October the US announced its decision to send Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Syria.
In early December, 2015, the number of SOF troops was substantially increased.
The fact that the US military are to deploy to Rimelan shows that the preparations are on the way for the next SDF assault against the Islamic State. The US military uses the airbase to increase the level of air support which they provide to Kurdish forces. It serves as a further indication that the US has chosen this group as its privileged ally in Syria, following failed attempts to cooperate with other forces in the country.
Any US-backed operation in northwestern Syria would have implications impossible to predict. Washington should consider ethnic identities in their battle plan for Syria. Syrian Kurds, though reliable and effective allies when it comes to defending their territory, are not an ideal invasion force for Raqqa, a Sunni Arab city. That’s why the US encouraged the creation of the Syrian Defense Forces, an alliance publicly announced for the first time in October. The US has tried to play down the SDF's Kurdish element and make it look like a multiethnic, multisectarian group. US officials emphasize the SDF has non-Kurdish components, but the true extent of Arab support remains blur. The Turks may change their priorities as the US military empowers Syrian Kurdish forces, specifically YPG.
Turkish leaders have been engaged in a decades-old conflict with its own Kurdish minority and do not want to see the Syrian Kurds expand. However, if Turkey fails to seal off its side of the border, the US could move to help the YPG block the Islamic State in that zone. An attack on the base by Turkey, an avowed opponent of an independent Kurdish state, would mean Turkey had committed an act of war against the United States. Turkey has already exacerbated its relations with another nuclear power when it downed a Russian jet.
The Syria’s government forces still hold large swaths of territory there. Large chunks of land are controlled by groups linked to al-Qaida. Russia is actively involved in military operation in the area. Whatever the goal, the plan will put American and allied warplanes closer than ever to areas that Syrian aircraft regularly bomb, raising the question of what they will do if Syrian warplanes attack their partners on the ground.
A US military base in Syria commits America to a prolonged military occupation in the country, which parallels its decade-plus long military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The predictable military drift from air strikes to taking territory provides a perpetual pretext for US intervention in Syria and the region, as the Rimelan airfield borders both Iraq and Turkey.
In the long run, it may lead to the de facto split of the country with the US and Russia directly supporting different sides in the fight against the common threat.
The sad experience of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan shows how easy it is to get entangled in the faraway conflicts with no way out of the fray. Operating a military base in Syria is a game changing decision that presupposes great responsibility. Think twice before you jump, wise men say. And now the main thing – the plans to build the base, as well as the plans to launch a ground offensive by the US-led coalition, are illegal from point of view of international law as it has neither agreement with the internationally recognized Syrian government, nor the approval of UN Security Council, nor the endorsement of American people.