U.S. special operations troops have reportedly taken over an airfield in northeastern Syria, potentially clearing the way to flow more American military support to friendly militias fighting the Islamic State group.
A small team of U.S. troops is setting up a base camp at Rmeilan Air Base in the Syrian Kurdish region near Syria's Iraqi and Turkish borders, according to local reports.
American helicopters operated were operating at the base during over the past couple of weeks as local workers were expanding expanded the runway, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The airfield was until recently under control of the Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, but was turned over to the U.S. to help expand American support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the loose-knit coalition of American-backed militants fighting the Islamic State group.
"Under a deal with the YPG, the U.S. was given control of the airport. The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an air base for U.S. warplanes," an SDF spokesperson, Taj Kordsh, told Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based international news network, in a report published Wednesday.
In December, a team of fewer than 50 U.S. special operations troops entered Syria for the first time and made face-to-face contact with the friendly Syrian militants, defense official say said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, Army Col. Steve Warren, declined to comment on the reports of Americans using the base.
"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," Warren told reporters Wednesday.
Rmeilan is near some of Syria's major oil production facilities.
The airfield is in the Hasakah region, where American-backed militias have been mounting offensive operations against Islamic State-held territory northeast of the extremist group's stronghold in Raqqa.
It is also near a key supply line connecting Raqqa to the Islamic State group's second major city, Mosul, Iraq. Cutting that supply line is a key piece of the current American strategy for defeating the group.
Control of the airfield would help U.S. troops expedite delivery of weapons and ammunition to the region as well as operate more aircraft such as medevac helicopters, armed drones or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.