A Remote Syrian Airstrip Hints At A Growing American Military Role : Parallels In northeastern Syria, local residents are watching the comings and goings from a rural airstrip they say is America's Syria footprint in the anti-ISIS war.
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A Remote Syrian Airstrip Hints At A Growing American Military Role

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A Remote Syrian Airstrip Hints At A Growing American Military Role

A Remote Syrian Airstrip Hints At A Growing American Military Role

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have an exceedingly rare glimpse of life inside Syria. In the last few years, Western reporters have only occasionally been able to make it into the country. NPR's Alice Fordham did. She traveled to northeastern Syria. If you think of the country as a - as a triangle, it's the point in the upper right over near Iraq. The region is controlled by Syrian rebels, who also oppose ISIS. And our colleague Alice found something else there, a small, fixed-up airstrip. Locals believe it is used by American forces. The Pentagon denies it has taken over this airstrip but acknowledges U.S. forces operate in the region and need to be resupplied from time to time. Let's listen.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a rusty, dusty farming town set in idyllic green countryside. But the fight against ISIS casts a long shadow here. Pictures of young men and women who died battling the extremists hang on every lamppost - colored posters stretching away out of sight.

Some are afraid to talk about the war and politics encroaching on their simple lives. I asked some women selling eggs and milk if they've heard anything about an airstrip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Oh, no," one says quickly, "we didn't hear anything about that." When a friend says, "oh, I'm sure I've heard about a new airport," the other women hush her quickly. And we're not saying exactly where it is, in order not to increase the danger to locals. But some are willing to discuss it.

MAHMOUD AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: (Foreign language spoken). Nice to meet you.

Mahmoud Ahmed comes over and introduces himself as a local official.

AHMED: I'm the father Shaheed.

FORDHAM: His son died fighting ISIS. He shows a photo.

AHMED: My son.

FORDHAM: He says oh, yes, indeed. He knows about planes flying into an old airstrip outside town.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He drives past it often and sees refurbishment going on.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "we hear the Americans deny it's them. But all of us know it is." He doesn't offer any evidence but says he's pleased because he thinks it means in future, ISIS won't even think about coming to this area.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Ahmed has two more sons fighting in a faction the U.S. is backing against ISIS and likes the gradually growing American presence. Here's what the U.S. government has officially acknowledged. Now there are military advisers here in northeastern Syria, which is largely Kurdish. There are airstrikes of course by the U.S.-led coalition. The U.S. has delivered ammunition. American officials have been photographed visiting local political leaders and commanders. In this sleepy corner of the world where whole villages are build of mud, people feel the presence of the United States military growing. And there are definitely people upset by that. Next to a stall selling hot shawarma sandwiches, Rakan Fawaz, a taxi driver, comes over to say his piece about the U.S. using the airstrip.

RAKAN FAWAZ: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So he says that, "I'm against that. I want the Russians to come here."

FORDHAM: He doesn't trust America.

FAWAZ: (Through interpreter) So because the Americans entered into Iraq - till now, it's making problems.

FORDHAM: We set off to see this airstrip for ourselves.

So there's a big mud wall outside. You can see two guards standing, smoking cigarettes and a couple of earthmovers. That's about it. Oh, and from here we can actually just about see the airstrip.

It's so basic - a concrete strip and some farmland. There's no buildings, no Americans I can see. I'm almost skeptical there are really planes flying in and out of here. But then we call in at the farmhouse of a rich tribal sheikh a few hundred yards down the road. The sheikh's not there, but the manager, Ali Hadid, shows us his horses. I ask Hadid if he hears things at the base.

ALI HADID: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Oh, yes," he says, "definitely helicopters - and warplanes more than helicopters." He's sure they're from the U.S.-led coalition. I ask if it's strange to have all this going on in the middle of nowhere.

HADID: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "no, we're sure they're friends. So if there's helicopters coming, we're relaxed about it." Alice Fordham, NPR News, northeastern Syria.

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