Under a deal with Kurdish group, activists say US will use airfield to support fighters against ISIL in northern Syria.
The US has denied taking control of a Syrian air strip in response to an opposition group’s claim that American troops are supporting Kurdish fighters in northern Syria with such a takeover.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday, a spokesman of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) said that the military “denied that US forces have taken control of any airfield in Syria”.
However, also on Friday, the website of Texas-based security analyst Stratfor said that satellite “imagery supports claims of US military activity in Syria”, as it posted graphics appearing to show an expansion of the airfield’s runway.
On Wednesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the US had taken control of the Rmeilan air strip in Syria’s northern province of Hasakah to support Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
The air strip near the city of Rmeilan was previously controlled by the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The formerly disused runway is close to Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey.
“The new and improved infrastructure could help the Syrian Democratic Forces conduct offensive operations against the Islamic State. The United States has already carried out two weapons airdrops to the rebel Syrian Arab Coalition, a faction of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Stratfor said on its website.
Taj Kordsh, a media activist from the SDF told Al Jazeera on Tuesday: “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.
“This airport was previously controlled by the YPG for over two years now. This strategic airport is close to several oil bases – one of the biggest in this area.
“Rmeilan airport was previously used for agricultural purposes by the Syrian government.”
Previous reports published by the Syrian Local Coordination Committees say that the US has been preparing and expanding the Rmeilan airstrip for a while now.
The US has previously supplied the SDF with weapons. It also backs the group with its air strikes in their fight against (ISIL) in northern Syria.
The SDF was founded in Syria’s mainly Kurdish northeastern region in October 2015, and is made up of at least 15 armed factions – mostly fighters from the YPG and the Free Syrian Army.
The fighters include Christians, Arabs and about 500 foreign fighters, Kordsh said, adding that some groups in Aleppo and Idlib pledged allegiance to the SDF last month.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor also reported on Tuesday that the US had taken control of the airbase.
Sourcing activists, the Observatory said the airfield is still being prepared for use by the US.
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition activists said air raids on two villages in eastern Syria killed at least 40 people and wounded scores more.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Firday said the victims of the raids on the villages of Tabiah and Bouleil included whole families.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said the air raids killed 30 in Tabiah and dozens in Bouleil.
Opposition activist Omar Abu Leila said Friday’s air raids hit the two villages that are under the control of ISIL, saying all those killed were civilians.
The LCC and Abu Leila said the air raids were carried out by Russian warplanes but it was not possible to independently confirm the claim.
ISIL controls most of Deir Ezzor province and over the past week launched a wide offensive capturing some areas from government forces near the provincial capital city of Deir Ezzor.