The Air Force has quietly carried out politically sensitive airdrops of supplies, reportedly including weapons and ammunition, to Syrian rebels that have been vital to the drive against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
The airdrops to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been opposed by NATO ally Turkey, were first reported by USA Today. The main force in the SDF is the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, which has been labeled a terrorist group by Turkey.
"Our expanded precision airdrop capability is helping ground forces take the offensive to [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and efforts to retake Raqqa," Air Force Gen. Carlton Everhart, commander of Air Mobility Command, told USA Today. He said that the Air Force conducted 16 airdrops last year, including six in December.
The disclosure of the airdrops came as the U.S. conducts airstrikes in support of Turkish troops involved in Operation Euphrates Shield inside Syria in the months-long siege of the ISIS-held town of al-Bab, near the Turkish border.
The U.S. in recent weeks has flown reconnaissance missions for the Turkish troops. "We've also begun conducting strikes against those targets in the vicinity of al-Bab," Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.
In an interview with Military.com on Tuesday, outgoing Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that airdrops are difficult and complex missions with inherent risks when ammunition and weapons are involved.
"Whenever we airdrop anything, of course, we go for precision; we want it to hit the target," James said. "But doubly important when its ammunition is that it hit the area we want and not stray into enemy lines so that [the] enemy could get it.
"I would say it has to do with the way we package it -- sort of the intricacies of how technically it's dropped so as not to have explosions, not to have damage, and also the degree of precision becomes even more important when you're talking about lethal types of equipment," she said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials have repeatedly called on the U.S. to stop supporting "terrorists" by backing the YPG while railing against the previous refusal of the U.S. to conduct airstrikes around al-Bab.
In a speech last month, Erdogan said, "We are your NATO ally. How on Earth can you support terrorist organizations and not us? Are these terrorist organizations your NATO allies?"
The State Department has called the Turkish charges "ludicrous."
In a sign that tensions with Turkey could be easing, Dorrian said in his briefing that the U.S. airstrikes around al-Bab are "in our mutual interest. This is something we expect to continue doing."
In talks in Moscow earlier this month, Turkey joined with Russia and Iran to announce a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria aimed at a peace conference in Kazakhstan later this month to end Syria's more than five-year-old civil war.
The U.S. was excluded from the Moscow talks, but Russia and Turkey have since indicated that the U.S. might be invited to the Kazakhstan peace conference, tentatively set for next week.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.