Russia has begun moving helicopters and other equipment to a new Syria base on the Turkish border, state TV reported on Thursday, November 14, weeks after U.S. forces began to withdraw from the northeast.
Two Mi-35 helicopter gunships and an Mi-8 transport helicopter were moved from the Hmeimim base on the Mediterranean to Qamishli airport in northeastern Syria, reported Zvezda television, which is run by the defence ministry.
Earlier reports suggested Russia had been negotiating a long-term lease of Qamishli airport, which is about 500 km (310 miles) to the north-east of Hmeimim.
Qamishli is the de facto capital of the self-declared autonomous region of North and East Syria. Much of the city is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, but parts of Qamishli, including the civilian airport on the outskirts, have been under Syrian government control throughout the conflict.
Russia also sent on-ground support, fuel and a meteorological service to Qamishli and has 10 vehicles on the ground to “ensure continuous flights, safety of the helicopters and the defence of this territory,” air force official Timur Khodzhayev told Zvezda.
“The main goal is to ensure calm,” he said.
The new base is protected by the Pantsir anti-aircraft gun and missile system and the landing area is encircled by military police, according to the channel.
Earlier this month the U.S. military met Kurdish officials outside Qamishli, and a source who took part in one of the meetings told AFP that U.S. forces wanted to return to the area.
AFP correspondents also saw a U.S. convoy in a village east of Qamishli on Wednesday.
On October 9, NATO-member Turkey and its Syrian proxy forces launched the Operation Peace Spring incursion into Syria to push the SDF and its predominantly-Kurdish YPG component south after U.S. President Donald Trump said American troops would withdraw from the immediate area.
Ankara wants to clear a 30-km buffer zone to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
Russia and Turkey signed a deal on October 22 that would see Russian military police and Syrian border guards “facilitate the removal” of the SDF from border areas.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Russia, “YPG” fighters must leave a 30-km area along the entire length of the Syria-Turkey border.
Backed by the U.S.-led Coalition, the SDF fought the ground war against ISIS in north and east Syria. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
With reporting from AFP