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US expands air base in northern Syria for use in battle for Raqqa

By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 3, 2017

WASHINGTON – The Air Force has expanded an air base in northern Syria to assist in the fight to retake the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, U.S. Central Command said.

The base is near Kobani, which is about 90 miles north of Raqqa, the last urban stronghold for ISIS in Syria. It gives the United States an additional location to launch aircraft to support U.S. and other anti-ISIS forces in the campaign to recapture the city, said Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command.

Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Group needed to expand and modify the airstrip at Kobani, which had been used by U.S. forces limitedly, because the condition of the runway curtailed what types of aircraft could land there.

Prior to making the airstrip at Kobani more versatile, the closest operating air facilities to support coalition operations were bases in Turkey at Incirlik and Diyarbakir.

Gen. Carlton Everhart II, who leads U.S. Air Mobility Command, said airmen from the 621st group have supported anti-ISIS coalition forces on the ground in Syria and the base enables aircraft to deliver critical supplies, equipment and help position forces.

“It brings things closer to the fight,” Thomas said.

The airmen entered Syria in November on a C-130 that landed on an airstrip of crushed rock, said Senior Master Sgt. Chris Wright, who led the 621st group’s security forces on that mission.

The Air Force’s contingency response group is tasked with landing on austere airfields so it can prepare them to receive aircraft and forces. Much of the time, the group is setting up airfields to respond to a humanitarian crisis, but has deployed three times during Operation Inherent Resolve.

In 2016, the group established the Kobani airfield in Syria and also set up an airfield at Qayarrah West in northern Iraq to support the fight against ISIS in Mosul. In 2015, it established an airstrip at al-Taqaddum to support Iraq’s battle for Ramadi.

“We set up the airfield from scratch,” Wright said of the airfield at Kobani, noting that when the unit first arrived just a few days after Army forces did, there were only a few aircraft. Since then, “it’s increased significantly,” he said.

Wright and a contingent of civil engineers, security forces and intelligence personnel were deployed temporarily to expand the base to “support every type of airframe across the [Defense Department] spectrum,” Wright said. They lived in tents and ate Meals Ready to Eat, known as MREs, for 45 days, he said.

The Kobani airstrip has been modified to support not only C-130s, which are able to land in most difficult environments, but also C-17s, which need a more hardened runway to support their weight, and other aircraft, Thomas said.

“There are pretty significant parallels between the landing strip near Kobani for the Raqqa battlespace and [Qayarrah West] for Mosul,” Thomas said, noting both bases are “out of enemy range but close to the fight. It helps.”

Last week, Voice of America reported the United States was assessing another airstrip near the newly retaken Tabqa Dam, north of Raqqa.

Because the contingency response group was deployed in Syria for fewer than 120 days, the group was not included in the mandated 503-troop limit for U.S. forces in Syria.

There are about 1,500 airmen in the 621st Contingency Response Group, but only a fraction of them will deploy to set up an airfield. The Air Force did not specify how many airmen deployed to Syria.

The Pentagon is assessing whether the troop limit in Syria should remain, since there are numerous categories of deployments that are not included in it, such as some special forces. If the limit is lifted, the Pentagon could provide a more accurate account of how many U.S. forces are in the country.

Copp.tara@stripes.com
Twitter:@TaraCopp
 

An illustration showing how a contingency response group works.
U.S. AIR FORCE

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